TCS Daily

A Media Tipping Point?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Over three years ago, I wrote:

Big journalism is in trouble, and big journalists don't like it. . . .


Annoyance to journalists is the least of this, because what is really going on is something much more profound: it's the end of the power of Big Media. For almost a hundred years - from the time William Randolph Hearst pushed the Spanish-American war, to the ascendancy of talk radio in the 1990s - big newspapers and, later, television networks have set the agenda for public discussion, and tilted the playing field in ways that suited their institutional and political interests.


Not any more. As UPI columnist Jim Bennett notes, what is going on with journalism today is akin to what happened to the Church during the Reformation. Thanks to a technological revolution (movable type then, the Internet and talk radio now), power once concentrated in the hands of a few has been redistributed into the hands of the many.


Since then, an army of Davids has delivered blow after blow to the media goliaths: From the debunking of "the brutal Afghan winter" to Jayson Blair, RatherGate, and more, bloggers and stand-alone Internet journalists have repeatedly shown up Big Media bias, laziness, and ineptitude.


That's not news, though it's a lot more obvious than it was in early 2002, and the trend has been pointed out in books like Brian Anderson's South Park Conservatives, Hugh Hewitt's Blog, and studies like this one from the Pew Internet Trust.


What is news is that now the old media outlets are declining in market share, to the point where Jeff Jarvis says that we're at a tipping point.


I had earlier predicted that blogs and alternative media would be more a threat to Big Media's self-image than to its pocketbook, deflating the pompous without really hurting market share. That may still turn out to be the case, but it does seem as if we're undergoing a major change. I know that I pay less and less attention to newspapers and television, and more and more to news from the Internet. I also know that I place less value in the "vetting" function of established media where controversial stories are involved, because it seems to me that they're not terribly trustworthy in this regard. (Not only is their reporting not to be taken for granted, but sometimes they're manipulating the very events they purport to describe).


The term "tipping point" may be accurate -- we may have crossed a threshold in which the game changes. Perhaps it's a case of the media world becoming sufficiently saturated that new expansion is coming at the expense of established players, as people have only so much time and attention to offer. As Steven Den Beste once observed:


That's the critical transition from non-zero-sum to zero-sum. Once the market saturates, you can only grow at the expense of a competitor.


Which finally leads up to the key insight I had a couple of days ago: during the non-zero-sum expansion stage, it is the virtues of each competitor which decide how well they prosper. But after the switch to zero-sum competition, it is their faults which decide who will die.


Alternatively, perhaps we've moved to a non-zero-sum period in which mediocrity is no longer enough. I'm inclined to suspect the latter, but it's certainly clear that something's changed, and that traditional media are doing poorly out of it. The Big Media organizations have their faults -- chiefly laziness, political groupthink, and a tendency to condescend to their audiences -- and those are starting to cost them. I don't know if they will actually die out, though the numbers for newspaper circulation and readership aren't very promising, but they are certainly threatened. (Things aren't quite as bad in the TV world, but television news is approaching the demographics of Matlock pretty fast.) For those armies of Davids, of course, there's no guarantee that they will prosper over the long term either. The march of media evolution won't stop for the benefit of blogs, and I predict that within a few years blogs as we know them today will have changed dramatically. But there's much more to new and alternative media than simply blogs -- and, regardless, it seems clear that the media world of the next decade won't look much like that of the 20th Century. Given the disappointing performance of the media Goliaths, that's probably just as well.


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