The future of media: Lightweight, post-industrial and technology-driven

By way of limbering up for tomorrow evening’s debate at The Frontline Club, I’m reading Roy Greenslade riffing off an Adam Tinworth post that focuses on the bloody-minded way in which many journalists misconstrue blogging.

Tinworth’s post is excellent:

It’s all too easy for people from a traditional media background to see community as a place – something off to the side where the readers go, while the journalists sit over here in the real part of the site.

Significantly, he adds:

In a sense, holding community apart from professional content only harms the professional content creators. It bars them from seeing and exploring the reaction from their customers to their work. It stops them developing relationships — friendships even — with those they ultimatly work for.

All true — and very similar to what Dan Gillmor articulated in We The Media in 2004.

On this basis, Greenslade has started to think that his predictions about the future of news organizations are wrong. Here’s why:

First, I wonder whether us pros are as valuable as we think. Second, and more fundamentally, I wonder whether a “news organisation” is as perfect a model as we might think.

For me, the second question is far more interesting. Consider the following list of factors and then tell me why the current industrial model of media production — which corrals hundreds of hacks into offices and keeps them glued to screens all day — should continue to dominate the market.

For some big media companies, the industrial model does have a future. But for others, I’m dubious. How many will fall by the wayside? It’s impossible to tell.

Anyway: here’s my list of the factors driving our business models. (Some, though not all, of these thoughts were triggered during a long chat with Ben Hammersley last week. . .)

  • Typically, media businesses rely upon people rather than technology. Google has made its business work by upending that traditional relationship. Isn’t it inevitable that companies following in its slipstream will tend to adopt a similar model? The future of any business whose products are digital must be people-lite / tech-intensive.
  • Happily, however, the cost of means of production (blogs, sites, wikis, whatever) is tending to zero.
  • So are the sosts of the means of distribution (assuming that network neutrality holds up as a principle) [link]
  • The baby boom generation is growing old. From now on, labour scarcity means that young talent has the upper hand in its relationship with employers — and can dictate terms.
  • The proliferation of lightweight web development approaches — all of them free, all of them constantly evolving through the contribution of open source developers. IT no longer needs to be about fixed armies of programmers, huge projects, proprietary skills and massive investment. It can be about open standards, rapid deploymentand constant evolution.
  • Consider the fact that it is increasingly possible to run a business without a heavyweight centralized IT department. Instead, why not tap into the grid?
  • Naturally, it is also possible to outsource both HR and accounts. . .
  • . . . as well as the production of low-value editorial content. If Bangalore isn’t to your liking, how about the Philippines?
  • In a digital era of declining revenues, leases on increasingly expensive prestige properties become a challenge. Do media companies need to stuff all of their employees into one building in the centre of a city? Not necessarily.
  • The automation of media sales is a necessary result of adjusting to a reduced revenue stream. Within a decade, the armies of sales folk who currently sell routine ad space will be gone. In their place: a few highly skilled relationship people (to manage big accounts) and some specialists skilled in specific areas like sponsorship or events.
  • Commuting is a horrendous experience, and will get worse. Why can’t people work from home three or four days a week?
  • If the cost of production and distribution is close to zero, publishing becomes less capital-intensive. In fact, it becomes capital-lite. What is the function of a company if not to acquire and allocate capital?

The answer to the last question is that it becomes largely a bundle of services, most of which can be purchased externally at competitive rates — and deployed far more flexibly.

What emerges from this stew of influences is a stripped-down vision of the future. At its most basic, this involves three or four people publishing a local web site, or a website for a specialist B2B audience. These employees will be surrounded by a network of flexible suppliers and freelance assistants.

It’s certainly possible to foresee coalitions of such sites emerging — and perhaps lightweight conglomerates that end up replacing the EMAPs and RBIs of today.

Under such circumstances, who will be a blogger? Who will be a journalist? And does it matter?

Not very much, I suspect. For under the circumstances I’ve outlined, any publication that isn’t engaged in a conversation with its readers won’t last for long.

For those unwilling to learn new tricks, the sting in the tail of this brave new world will be merciless market discipline. . .

PS: Tomorrow night’s event at The Frontline Club features Matt Wells (The Guardian), Ben Hammersley, Ian Douglas (The Telegraph), Paul Staines (A.K.A. Guido Fawkes) and me debating the commercial future of media. Tickets will set you back a princely £7. . .

If you’re coming along and want to meet up, or just fancy a post-event chat, drop me a line at: peter[dot]kirwan[insertampersand]fullrun[dot]com.

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