It's Time to Stop Talking About the Death of Big Media
Last week one of our guest writers, Francisco Dao, published a post entitled "What Happens After We Kill Big Media?" In it, he breezily surmised that big media’s “downfall is inevitable” and proceeded to grieve for its demise.
“The Internet will ultimately win,” Dao said, “and we can take solace in knowing that there is no stopping the march toward that future. So instead of simply attacking big media for being the enemy, we should consider what our world would look like if they fail.”
Hang on – what?
Didn’t we evolve beyond the “Internet vs big media” dichotomy a few years ago? Isn’t it clear that “the Internet," despite the magical quality applied to it by some denizens of the Valley, is nothing more than a network, which can be used as a channel and a platform, and that it is just as accessible to “big media” as it is to a bunch of comp-sci grads who have rented space in Palo Alto?
The idea that “the Internet” will defeat a clueless “big media” at its own game is romantic at best, naive at least, and actually, in a way, kind of cute. It reminds me of a scene from the documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times" in which a besuited and insufferable hipster executive from Vice magazine tries to tell media reporter David Carr that, while the Times was writing about surfing, he was telling the world about cannibalism in Liberia.
Carr stops typing, holds his right hand up, and says, with some venom: “Just a second. Hang on. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide, and just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and you looked at some poop, doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.”
Let me make this clear: big media – CNN, The New York Times, Hollywood, the major music labels (god, especially the labels) – have fumbled on digital repeatedly. They have failed to grasp how to best use the Internet, not only to engage with the audience, but also to reach new audiences, deliver new content, repackage old content, integrate newsrooms, and whatever the fuck else it is they were supposed to be doing (offer check-ins?) as soon as some geek in a basement invented a Paradigm Shifting Technology. Many of them still don’t get it. But they’re not going to suck forever.
Big media might be cumbersome and occasionally numb-skulled when to comes to digital, but they’ve got deep pockets, and they’re not totally stupid. They hire smart young minds, who know what’s going on. They realize that digital offers a huge opportunity and a challenge. And they’re acting on it.
Today I was at a media event for the launch of Christiane Amanpour’s new CNN interview show, Amanpour. I stuck around afterwards to talk to the show’s digital producer Samuel Burke, who was one of the first hires for the project. A few years ago, his position didn’t exist.
“Everybody says that big media’s dying,” the 26-year-old told me. “And yes, there are many more media outlets than before, because it’s so easy to enter the market. But they have such tiny budgets that they’re really able to cover international news less and less.”
Dotcom startups might have a lot of content, but they don’t invest in covering as many places as do the likes of CNN, Reuters, or The New York Times.
“In a way, by having so many places out there, so many spaces available for content, they’re competing against each other,” reckoned Burke. “But at the end of the day, it almost strengthens us, because most of those places are not sending people to Afghanistan, are not sending people to Syria. That’s not happening.”
Like them or loathe them, CNN also invests a lot in their product. I watched part of a rehearsal taping for Amanpour’s show, and there were nine people in the control room concentrating solely on getting the production just right – cueing audio, fixing the teleprompter, calling camera angles, nailing the timing, chattering incessantly, tapping away at keyboards, and twiddling dials. And that’s to say nothing of the cameramen, the make-up crew, the guest-hunting and coordinating, the editorial process, and looking after the anchor. Just a rehearsal. Let’s not even start on the marketing.
Who in the corner of this mythical entity Dao calls “the Internet” can match CNN on those fronts? The Huffington Post? Daily Kos? Drudge Report? Current TV? The Daily?
Yes, the digital disruption of the media industry has been massive and real. It pried open some cracks in which some excellent excellent new media properties have been able to thrive – Slate, Salon, The Awl, just to name a few. New platforms have emerged to challenge big media’s hegemony, but as they mature and as big media catches up, those platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Spotify – are proving fertile territory for the major media brands. CNN, for example, is one of the most followed brands on social media. Its central Twitter presence counts more than 4 million followers. The Huffington Post has 1.8 million.
And if big media is lurching to its death bed, the latest findings from Pew’s State of the News Media report make for befuddling reading. According to that, evening news viewership across ABC, CBS, and NBC increased by 1 million viewers in 2011, while CNN and MSNBC posted primetime gains of 16 percent and 3 percent respectively.
Meanwhile, The New York Times, which is supposed to be carking it any minute now, rolled out a much-ridiculed subscription plan for its most loyal readers that in one year has signed up more than 450,000 users, who pay between $15 and $35 per month. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s hardly a pine coffin, either. At the same time, its Web traffic has remained largely unaffected, and in November the paper announced that its home-delivery circulation had increased for the first time in five years.
I’m a champion of digital, and I’ve watched with bemusement as big media has stumbled its way awkwardly through this hazy, still-emerging space. (Remember, we’re just 15 years into this Internet experiment.) But the game isn’t over. It has hardly even started.
And yes, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, Yelp, Foursquare, Netflix, and a bunch of others, are up-ending the media market in an awesome, exciting way. But in 20 years, if not already, we’ll give these companies a simple, easy-to-deride label that can be expressed and dismissed with two simple words: Big. Media.
Don’t mourn for the death of it just yet.