Facebook was started in 2004, Google six years earlier, and Wikipedia in 2001. It’s impossible to have a well-founded understanding of what’s going to happen with media development from now and into the start of the next decade.
It can’t be ruled out that, in ten years time, some totally unheard of companies will be well on their way toward establishing themselves, so that their names become generic household names, as Google, Wikipedia and Facebook are today.
In his much heralded text, Clay Shirky advances the idea that it is impossible for us to predict what will follow the media structure we have lived with up to 1995. His principal thesis is that all we can know for sure is that it will be a different structure. History won’t be reversed.
Above all, it’s about the ongoing disintegration of the business model of daily newspapers. Shirky writes:
“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.”
The actual business model of daily newspapers has driven development toward a monopoly: advertisement funding has systematically favored the strongest on the market and consequently made it impossible for other newspapers to survive. So, when the strong have fallen, there will be, in practice, nothing left.
We see an entirely different logic on the television market. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief for the magazine Wired, and author of the book , explains how modern technology changes the situation for television.
Previously, television was similar to newspapers in that the big channels attracted the big advertising money. In turn, they could offer better programs which attracted even more viewers which then lead to even bigger advertising revenues and so on and so forth. But with modern technology (not only Internet but also Internet), many niche channels were offered, and with them came the opportunity to effectively choose among a diversity of channels. The logic of the television market has thus evolved so that television as a form of media, and advertising revenues as the basis of the television business model, is pretty stable. This doesn’t mean, though, that the strongest television channel will be even stronger.
To the contrary, television companies are optimizing through offering a multitude of niche channels. We see this in television markets around the world; in Sweden as in the USA.
A clear example is the Swedish channel TV4, which started as a single channel but today also includes TV4 Plus, TV4 Film, TV4 Fakta (TV4 Facts), TV4 Guld (TV4 Gold), TV4 Komedi (TV4 Comedy), TV4 Sport, TV4 Science Fiction, and TV4 HD. Additionally, this includes 15 channels through Canal+, mostly sport and film channels.
This long-tail strategy means that the niche channels cannibalize the market of their own main channel. Niche channels succeed in attracting more total viewers than what they cannibalize from the main channel. But overall – or rather socially – this implies a systematic fragmentation, replete with political and cultural repercussions.
The average viewer in the USA has about 100 channels to choose from today. The big news programs of the leading television networks are losing their special position. America’s ABC has made considerable cuts during the last year. In February 2010 ABC announced that they would be cutting back their news organization by between 300 and 400 positions, or about 20-30 percent. At the same time, CBS News announced a reduction of 110 employees, corresponding to almost ten percent of its operation. Substantial reductions in staff at NBC also occurred during 2009.
Television is not losing as a medium but is weakening as a platform for democracy. With this comes a threat that Clay Shirky consistently repeats as a fundamental starting point: socially concerned journalism is weakening and its resources are disappearing as a result of the ongoing changes in media structure.
Shirky shifts the problematization from how newspapers, or media institutions, are to be rescued to how journalism is to be rescued: “When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works’. And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”
Alex S Jones, Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis
In January 2010, Clay Shirky closed his special blog that had been connected to his article on the unthinkable, after having received 1219 comments. These comments are a virtual treasure trove of analyses, whims and ideas. Naturally, Clay Shirky has been challenged. Critics say that he lacks background in journalism and point out that there’s always been someone crying wolf.
Alex S Jones is Shirky’s complete opposite. He’s from a newspaper family. He’s devoted his entire working life to journalism, first as a very successful journalist for, among others, the New York Times. For the last number of years he’s been active in academics at Harvard University where he’s currently Director of the Shorenstein Center. In his 2009 book, , he sketches a picture of the problem that coincides with Shirky’s in important respects.
Jay Rosen is another of the leading media analysts in the American academic world. He’s active at New York University. Rosen’s analysis agrees in an absolutely fundamental way with Clay Shirky’s. When we meet with him in New York, he emphasizes – using nearly the same words as Shirky does – that we know how it was, but not how it will be:
“The economic base for good journalism is being eroded and no one knows where the money will come from in the future. We only know one thing and that is that it won’t be a dominant model.”
Similar to Shirky, Jay Rosen’s blog plays a role for which we don’t really have a counterpart, since fluency in the Swedish language is limited to such a small area of the world. While others in academics talk about important books they have written, Rosen talks about important blog entries he has posted (which hasn’t stopped him from, among other things, writing the acclaimed book What Are Journalists For?, which is a type of manifesto for citizen journalism, or at least for journalism in the service of citizens).
Jay Rosen is an unobtrusive, rather academic person, albeit very active on .
Jeff Jarvis, an active member of the Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York, is also an entrepreneur. He’s a long-time journalist whose academic career developed as an off shoot of his journalism. He’s spirited and not a little provocative.
He’s most well known for his book What Would Google Do? But he makes his most significant contributions through his very dynamic blog, . His analyses are radical. The role of journalism isn’t just going through change – it’s more or less on the way to dissolving. We’re all becoming journalists since we’re all active on Internet. And Internet is the ungraspable, the chaotic, the indefinable: “Internet is not a media. Internet is like life – it’s messy, it’s loud and there are some stupid people out there”
It’s easy to brush off what and other more radical interpreters of Internet claim. At the same time, altogether too few dare to think outside the box. That’s not to say that the new media reality is unproblematic. Jarvis doesn’t use the term ”Internet fools” lightly; followers of his blog BuzzMachine certainly meet fools there. Jarvis’ blog, more than other serious blogs, seems to attract more of the fools.
Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of , published by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), considers himself a strong critic of Shirky’s. But in meaningful differences between the two aren’t easy to identify:
“Things change or die, including once-cherished organizations. Today’s newspapers and magazines will be transformed or replaced by other publications, which will have new forms and modes of business. There will be a great and terrible clearing: scores of newspapers and magazines will vanish; those that survive will be much reduced; and most people employed as journalists or media professionals today will have different jobs in five years.”
Kevin Kelly and James Fallows
A fundamental line of argumentation that differs somewhat from Shirky’s is the very pedagogical, “classic” Internet text, , by Kevin Kelly.
Kelly lists eight fundamental reasons explaining that content, ultimately, is not going to be “free”. His starting point is not the simple idea that in the long run there cannot be some content that is free if content is free. Kelly describes instead the qualitative characteristics linked to the user paying for content.
All of these characteristics are basically about how the special relationship between provider and user never comes about if an item or service is free. One could express it as while there will be content, it won’t be of value if content is free. If there is valuable content, there is no mechanism for identifying that which is of value. One of the market’s functions is to be just such a sorting mechanism. Kelly’s line of argument differs only partially from Shirky’s.
In a very widely-commented article in The Atlantic — — James Fallows discusses how the “big enemy Google” looks at the development of newspapers, newspaper companies and news:
“The three pillars of the new online business model, as I heard them invariably described, are distribution, engagement, and monetization. That is: getting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads.”
As suggested by Fallows’ review of Google’s strategies, the company works in cooperation with many media companies, not least newspapers. Most recently they’ve contracted with AP to publish their flow of news telegrams. The reason for this arrangement is obvious: the basic business idea of Google is to manage information that someone else has produced. In other words, Google has a very strong interest in the proper functioning of knowledge production.
There are, especially in the USA, many research institutions, think tanks, networks, periodicals and blogs that are concerned with the future of media and journalism. Several have just been mentioned. Among those with quality content that haven’t been mentioned is from Harvard that also publishes a quarterly journal . One of the more nourishing American sites is . A similar British site is from Oxford University where, among others, the Danish media researcher is based.
Not Only USA
Charlie Beckett is the manager for , a research center at the London School of Economics and the London College of Communication. At a recent seminar, “The Future of News”, Beckett summarized:
“I think that it is still right to ask tough questions about the kind of online journalism that will emerge from this period of extraordinary transition. If the internet is to realize its full potential it should allow independents to be more than digital stringers from the real world for the major organizations. If the market is to be truly vibrant it must allow minnows to grow in to media sharks, just as small tv production houses have become major broadcast players. The market needs that injection of innovation and competition. But it also needs pluralism to reflect the diversity of modern life. A connected diversity, a networked journalism that allows the major news brands to thrive while helping to sustain a real variety of news models would be my ideal outcome.”
In general, it’s difficult to find qualified and nuanced commentators who paint a different picture of newspaper journalism’s situation and long-term perspective than what is given by Clay Shirky, Alex S Jones, Jason Pontin and Charlie Beckett. The same applies to analysts of newspaper companies on the stock market, even if the analysts there have a significantly shorter time perspective.
While American newspaper companies listed on the stock exchange have increased in value since sinking to their all-time low in 2009, they are today worth only 20 percent of the value they had back in the summer of 2005.
Qualified media analysts often position the Internet against newspapers. It’s emphasized that it is the business model of newspapers that is eroding. Apparently, television is less affected than newspapers by the new technology. But in the same way that it is probably misleading to only view the new and traditional media as mutually exclusive alternatives, it can also be deceiving to try to understand advances in media from the perspective of devices and new technology alone. The big change that has occurred in the world of television during the latest decades, as emphasized earlier, is the vast expansion in the number of available television channels. The consequence has been a qualitative change in television viewing. Television has changed from a collective source of knowledge medium to an individualized entertainment medium.
Elihu Katz, one of the USA’s most prominent media theorists, writes on this under the title “The End of Television?” in The Annals (The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 625, September 2009). Milly Buonanno discusses, among other things, Elihu Katz’s article in his review in the International Journal of Communication [Nr 4(10)]. Katz’ expression “the end of television” is modified by Menahem Blondheim to “the end of the news” in his book of the same title.
The paradox is that although television is dying, it’s never been stronger than it is today. The explanation is that Katz speaks of television as a medium. What’s coming to an end is an era “of sharedness, of nation-building and family togetherness”.
Today’s media world has totally different features than that characterizing the post-war period. The traditional forms of social and cultural community are today being renegotiated.
The Swedish Media Research
Sweden and Scandinavia nurture lively and interesting media research, including research on new media. Nordicom, under the leadership of Ulla Carlsson, is an extremely important node in media research in general. We refer to a number of Swedish researchers in various chapters of this blog. Despite ongoing research and the presence of Nordicom, there really are no current forums or platforms for research-related discussions of the future of media development. In addition to those we mention in other chapters, Pelle Snickars manages a very content-rich site; Lars Ilshammar has an active and very broad blog and Lars Nord writes a relatively personal blog.
The creation of a public media sphere for the purpose of serious debate would be a great advantage for Swedish media development. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, we must pose a question that we have asked ourselves as we have written this web book: is Swedish really the language with which we should engage in this debate? The Internet knows no national borders. Shouldn’t that imply consequences for the way we communicate on the Internet? Not English instead of Swedish but perhaps English and Swedish.