The ripple effect of changes in media technology

I’ve been putting up links to a few interesting pieces on how Trump has changed the media cycle (here and here), and I’ve enjoyed Jay Rosen’s thinking before.

So a quick update on two pieces that I think tie things together well; and one in particular that draws together a structural change we all know is happening, and reflects on what that means for reporting on politics, music, movies and games.

Jay Rosen reflects on why many media organisations are similar, and why some reporters who focus on the interests of a particular group can be incredibly valuable.

A really excellent piece by John Hermann over at The Awl thinks through how traditional media works, and why it’s changing as a result of very fundamental shifts in media technology. His argument, simply put, is that in previous eras, media organisations had an audience, and they could use that to negotiate with people they needed something from – politicians, musicians, game developers. When it’s hard to reach a large audience, a politician may settle for a less than completely favourable piece of coverage, if it boosts their chances of getting something out there. But as the various platforms on the interwebs make it really easy for people to reach millions of others, the media has less negotiating power. Instead of having an exclusive, they may end up reporting on a star’s instagram feed. Hermann summarises:

To make this as crude and simple as possible, a generation of publications and channels that were built and configured around the maintenance of large and exclusive audiences now find themselves borrowing much less coherent audiences from platforms that mediate their every action. The first and most apparent effects resulting from this change were in their styles of coverage: their stories, videos, and beats changed to better suit the new places in which they’re consumed. These changes were apparent in viral news and curiosity gap headlines; in strange patterns of coverage and new styles of bizarre colloquial feed writing and video. It was a story told largely in terms of publications and their traffic.

To lose some control over your publication’s tone and story selection is an early and conspicuous consequence of outsourcing distribution. But probably a small one, in the grand scheme of assimilation. Ceding news or entertainment judgement to the platform where your stories will be shared—the implicit goal of Facebook’s Signal product, which gives reporters the ability to see which subjects are trending on Facebook before they break wide—has implications for the deeper purpose of your operation (if it was ever more specific than “getting traffic, somewhere”). But to truly succeed in the context of a platform is to surrender at all points of overlap: to accept that your audience is borrowed, and to then bargain for the best terms possible. The publication that assumes the role of mediating the truth, or providing a unifying context for the Happenings of the World, is a peculiar fit on a platform that does much of the same thing under a different pretense. It will have to become something else, which is something I suspect a lot of publications can’t afford to do.

Hermann isn’t glamourising the previous system – there’s a lot that can be seen to be wrong about newspapers negotiating (effectively) based on access to their audience. I think it’s also equally wrong to assume that interwebs based audience interaction is necessarily a positive step forward.

But it certainly is interesting.


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