TEDx Toronto: New Media vs. Old Media

by Mathew on September 19, 2009 · 54 comments

I was honoured recently by being asked to be one of the featured presenters at the first TEDx Toronto, a kind of mini-version of the famous TED conference that took place in at the Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto on September 10th (which also happened to be my birthday). The title of my presentation was “Five Ways New Media Can Save Old Media,” and it was quite well received as far as I could tell. So I thought I would post the slides here – they are embedded if you are reading this via RSS – and the transcript. The TEDx organizers said that there would be video of all the talks available, so I will post that as well when it arrives.

Good afternoon, and thanks for joining me for this part of TEDx Toronto. I’m honoured to be included in this event with so many great speakers and thinkers. The title of this presentation is Five Ways New Media Will Save Old Media. If we look at that title, we can see there are three implicit assumptions: 1) old media needs to be saved; 2) old media can be saved; and 3) old media should be saved.

Let’s take those one at a time: does old media need to be saved? Revenues are dropping at many media entities, not just newspapers; circulation is stagnant at best, and some media outlets have already gone bankrupt or closed for good, or gone online-only. Let’s call that assumption “proven,” just for the sake of argument.

Can old media be saved? I believe that it can — although I have no proof of that. If I had proof that old media could be saved, I would be sitting on a beach somewhere. I think it’s also important to think about what we mean by using the word “saved.” Do we mean restoring traditional media to the good old days of 25-per-cent returns and rising readership? I don’t think that’s likely to happen.

Should old media be saved? I believe that it should — but I have no way of proving that either. A friend of mine thinks that old media is in the process of dying out, like the dinosaurs, and that it will eventually be replaced by more nimble entities, just as mammals replaced most of the giant lizards who used to roam the earth.

Does traditional media have flaws? Sure it does. But I think it also has many strengths. There’s a baby in the bathwater, and I don’t think we should be in a hurry to throw it out until we know what we would be missing. Traditional media has a reputation — in most cases — for accuracy, for independence (speaking truth to power, as my friend Craig Newmark likes to call it) and for trust.

That last point, incidentally, comes out of those two previous points: trust doesn’t emerge out of nowhere — it extends to traditional media outlets because they care about accuracy and independence and being fair (notice I didn’t say objective). Obviously, some media outlets care more about those attributes than others, and that goes for both online and traditional media. But those are still goals that are worth preserving.

I don’t happen to think old media needs salvation — I think it needs to evolve. One of the things I’m trying to help do in my current job is to think about how that happens, and to help it along. All we really need to do is to teach the fish to walk on its fins. That’s not hard, right? Just shove it up on land and then push it along. Simple.

I don’t really like to think of the existing media industry as “old” media. I like the word “traditional” media, because it emphasizes that what we call media or journalism is based on the accumulation of traditions over time — the last 100 years or so.

When you think about it, the media isn’t a profession in the sense that medicine or the law is — you don’t have to go before the bar, or get licensed by a college or anything like that. You don’t even need to know how to spell. Journalism is a lot more like a craft than it is a profession. There are standards, but they have developed over time rather than being imposed. All we’re talking about is adding to those traditions, or helping them to evolve.

What if there was a new ethic of journalism that included reader interaction? John Carroll of the Knight Foundation raised that idea at a recent conference on the future of journalism at the Aspen Institute. What if not involving the public in some way was seen as an ethical lapse, in the same way as spelling someone’s name wrong or not getting both sides of the story is?

Speaking of evolution, thinking about this issue brought me back to my own evolution as a journalist. 10 years ago or thereabouts I was a traditional journalist — except we just called ourselves journalists period. As a friend of mine likes to put it, we called people up and asked them irritating questions and then wrote down what they said and put it in the newspaper.

Then something fairly significant happened: I started writing fewer columns, and blogging more. That produced two substantial changes — 1) people could link to what I wrote, and thereby promote it to their friends and others, and I could link to others as well; and 2) they could comment on what I wrote, and call my attention to when I made a mistake — which they did regularly and with great enthusiasm — or add information on a topic.

These two changes, I think, pretty much sum up much of what the media industry is struggling to deal with in terms of how the business as we understand it is changing.

So let’s get to the five ways:

1) enlarging the size of the media pie:

You don’t need me to tell you that the tools required to publish something that can be read by millions of people no longer belong exclusively to the media industry. They are cheap, even free, and widely distributed. They are also easy to use, and in many cases much easier than the tools that traditional media is used to.

I would argue that this is inherently good — or at least predominantly good. Are there bad bloggers, and rumours that fly around Twitter, and media outlets that lie or do other bad things? Sure there are. But fundamentally, more journalism — performed by whoever has the tools — is good. And good journalism will drive out bad journalism, I think. Of course, I have no proof for that either.

The only reason you might not think this is a good thing is if you are a member of the media who kind of enjoys the semi-exalted status you think you hold, the exclusivity, the sense of being an insider, a member of a priesthood or guild. Then you are likely to see what I’m describing as bad — but I think you would be wrong. Monks used to be the only ones who could write books too, but they eventually got over that.

2) making media a process instead of a product:

The reality is that the way we have produced traditional media for decades — that kind of quasi-industrial process where a news story is crafted and then chiseled into shape and then stamped out and delivered in trucks — is an artificial construct based on a specific delivery system or platform. We all know that news, journalism, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t occur in nice, neat packages with a beginning and an end and a compelling character arc in the middle.

New media is better able to represent reality in that sense — news events begin with a post on Twitter, or a headline somewhere, and then they take shape over time, things get corrected and/or added to, then there are photos, videos, then interviews, then readers comment with their perspectives, some of which may change the shape the story takes. That is a positive thing, in my view.

3) making media human:

People have always looked for trusted filters for the news — that’s what made Walter Cronkite so famous, and it’s why my wife chooses to watch Leslie Roberts instead of Lloyd Robertson, and why my friend reads Christie Blatchford, even though she drives him around the bend sometimes. More information requires more trusted filters, and the best way to earn someone’s trust is to be human.

Traditional journalists tend to fail miserably at being human. It’s just not something we’re used to admitting. Why do we try to cover up our mistakes, instead of admitting them and correcting them in plain sight? Because we don’t want to admit that we make mistakes. I actually think doing that makes us more trustworthy rather than less. If someone told you that they never make mistakes, would you believe them? No. You would assume they were lying, or a megalomaniac.

4) making media multi-directional:

This encompasses comments from readers, Twitter, blogs, wikis, Facebook and pretty much any other form of communication we can think of. The truth is that readers often know as much or more about a particular story as we do — and they are happy to tell us if we will only let them. Journalists like to think that we have an exclusive on the truth, that only we can possibly find all the important information. That was never really true, and now readers have ways of telling us it isn’t true.

5) giving people choice:

The reality is that the one-size-fits-all, mass-media experience is over with. It has long since ceased to be relevant in any real way, as much as we might like to think that it is still with us. People consume the media they want, in bites and slices, and I think they always have — it’s just more obvious now than when we shipped them the newspaper and assumed (or told ourselves) that they read the whole thing religiously.

Many people see journalism and the media as a spectrum of choices. Sometimes they may wish to have something light and non-filling, like a celebrity profile or a horoscope. Other times they may be interested in something deeper and more important. In the case of a news event like an earthquake or a terrorist attack, they may be willing to trade a complete assurance of accuracy for the immediacy of a breaking-news report, or for a personal take from someone near the scene.

Again, new media is flexible enough to deliver any and all of those things — and the best part is that all those tools, as I mentioned, are cheap and easy to use — and that means they are easy for traditional journalists to use as much as they are for new media to use.

What do all of these things have in common? They are all ways of strengthening and deepening the relationship we have with our readers, or users, or the people formerly known as readers and users. By admitting we are human and fallible, by inviting them into the conversation or the debate or the dialogue, and by accepting and taking their contributions seriously, we build trust with them. Trust is the new black, as Craig likes to say. It is the new competitive advantage.

A stronger relationship with readers isn’t just a nice thing to have, a thing to put on our Christmas wish list — I am firmly convinced that it is the key to the survival of our industry.

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