Bright Lights Project – Mainstream Media

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One of the places the idiotic “Free = Paid” financial model perpetrated by new media zealots first took hold was in the media business itself, perhaps because there was no obvious way to avoid it. Newspapers and magazines found themselves giving away the very substance of their existence much the same way looters yanking TVs through broken store windows represented a new financial model for electronics retailing.

It really didn’t matter what they did, though, since when anybody can write, record, or video stuff about anything and propagate it everywhere, it ensures that everything they create has a base value of zero (infinite supply = completely worthless, it turns out). Truth becomes an opinion, and “news” gets defined by whomever feels like defining it…or sells a technology platform to distribute it.

While the zealots celebrated this fact as an inherent quality of content and labeled anyone who disagreed (or who wanted to make a buck off of what they created) as dinosaurs of the Bad Old Era of One-Way Media Fascism, folks were still making money off of “free” media: They were called aggregators, not publishers, and some of them earned multi-million dollar deals for pulling together content they didn’t pay for creating, and then charging advertisers for putting their ads in front of the viewers who didn’t pay for looking at it. It was never free. What changed was who got paid for it.

Separately, the vast majority of amateur writers (including yours truly) continued to simply give their stuff away…not because it was free, per se, but because there was value in the conversations and opportunities it prompted. For us, Free = Other Value, and that’s not only OK but it provided cool new model for creators who didn’t have an outlet for their creations. But the new media myths that giving stuff away was smart business left most professional content creators high, dry, and penniless.

Only here we are at the start of 2012 and some of the most ancient animals in the media kingdom are charging again for their products. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, for instance, have both figured out that if they’re going to go out of business it should be because they neglected to try to earn a living. This comes on the tails of Apple helping the music industry avoid extinction by attaching a pricetag to .mp3 downloads, and some interesting experimentation with paid TV apps.

Could it mean that there’s a future for the “Paid = Survival” model? I think so, and I see the key to realizing that success in a report last week concerning Rihanna and Advertising Age.

It seems that lots of new media sites picked up a story that an ad featuring her in her underwear qualified as the “sexiest” in a poll conducted by the ad industry magazine. Only there’d been no poll and the mag had run no such story.  But, in typical online fashion, each new site picked up the story from the last, repurposing the content to fill their pages of aggregated content without bothering to question or confirm that the story was true.

A “content mill” created it — another new media invention that manages to monetize putting words into the ether, oddly enough — and the technique of floating faux news stories to promote celebrities is as old as a promotion for movie starlet Rita Hayworth in the 1930s, according to this (unsubstantiated) story.

So I think therein lurks the future for mainstream media. Here are my three thought-starters:

  • Provide Transparent Authority — I remember working in the PR business back in the bad old days and getting so frustrated that journalists (not all) insisted on being, well, legitimate. Why couldn’t they just reprint the blather I’d written for my clients? Such principles and practices are at the core of what differentiates old or ‘real’ media from the newer simulacra, so why not do a far more explicit and complete job of marketing it? If I knew that the New York Times didn’t just deliver all the news fit to print but that it was always thrice-checked, details confirmed, or whatever, perhaps I’d better estimate its value.
  • Quit Giving Opinions —  A corollary to vetting news the old fashioned way (being the diametric opposite of unfiltered, immediately-available content) would be to stop passing off opinion for news, or commentary for analysis. Again, opinions are cheap and common while carefully reasoned analyses are rare, and less of something means it could be worth more…if only the propagators had a clue how to market it. The ‘fact free’ zone in which the 2012 American Presidential campaign is being waged is a perfect example. Without any consistent context, readers, listeners and viewers each possess their own sets of ‘facts’ that are usually incompatible and often laughable.
  • Promote What’s Uncomfortable — The glib approach to creating content these days requires nothing more than a quickie survey of what consumers what to know — new diets, celeb exposes, finding Hitler’s lost gold — and then creating those stories for their consumption (or playing to their established biases in politics, science, etc.). When Thomas Jefferson said that he’d rather have a country without a government than without newspapers, it was because of the work the Fourth Estate does in identifying, exploring, and presenting stuff we didn’t think to ask for, not playing to our most base and easy interests.

I see the growing likelihood of a mainstream media resurgence. It’ll need to be based on affirming the reasons why we need it, not just by it mimicking all of the wants that are satisfied by new media outlets. Format doesn’t matter, in my book (ER, tablet screen). “Free = Paid” isn’t dead because it never lived.

I say “Paid = Paid” could continue to make a comeback in 2012. What do you think?

Image by: jrhode

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