Back to the future: Is media returning to the 19th century?

In a series of articles looking at the evolution of media in a digital age, The Economist comes to the conclusion that new media — and in particular the explosion of blogs and other social media tools like Twitter and Facebook — is taking society back to where it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the development of newspapers and other mass media platforms. This is a phenomenon that Om described as the “democratization of distribution” in a recent post. But is this future in which everyone is (or can be) a publisher a good thing, or does it lead to the so-called “Foxification” of media?

The Economist‘s series includes an overview of the media industry and separate pieces looking at the concept of crowdsourcing — or the “people formerly known as the audience,” to use a phrase coined by journalism professor Jay Rosen — as well as the influence of Wikileaks, the alleged death of newspapers, the rise of pay walls and the idea that transparency is replacing objectivity. These are all issues that we have written about as well, including the idea that Wikileaks is a journalistic entity, and that social media makes journalism more human, whether media outlets like it or not.

A time before mass media

As The Economist notes, up until the early 19th century there was no “mass media” in the sense that we think of the term now. Newspapers had not really been invented yet, and news still travelled via word-of-mouth, or via hand-printed pamphlets written by people like political theorists Thomas Paine and John Locke. And even when newspapers as we know them started to be published and distributed, they were opinionated — and often gossip-filled — publications that catered to a tiny audience, much like blogs did when they first appeared. Says The Economist:

In many ways news is going back to its pre-industrial form, but supercharged by the internet. Camera-phones and social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter may seem entirely new, but they echo the ways in which people used to collect, share and exchange information in the past. “Social media is nothing new, it’s just more widespread now,” says Craig Newmark.

Although we think of “mass media” such as television, radio and newspapers as fixtures in our lives and in the media economy, says The Economist, “the mass-media era now looks like a relatively brief and anomalous period that is coming to an end.” As media and publishing become something anyone can do, whether on their blog or via other social tools such as Twitter or Tumblr, media companies are having to reinvent themselves to take advantage of this phenomenon — and to survive.

A new generation that has grown up with digital tools is already devising extraordinary new things to do with them, rather than simply using them to preserve the old models. Some existing media organisations will survive the transition; many will not.

Pressure to adapt

Some traditional media entities are trying to adapt to this new reality, whether by exploring tools like Tumblr the way some New York Times (s nyt) writers have, or trying to get more social with their content by implementing features like Facebook Connect — which has been a major driver for new-media success stories like The Huffington Post (s aol). Some newspapers have tried to reorient their businesses around a “digital first” approach, like The Guardian in Britain, and some smaller companies such as the Journal-Register Co. have taken bolder steps toward remaking the way they operate.

That said, however, too many companies continue to merely dip their toes in the digital waters, and seem to be relying on things like pay walls and subscription-based iPad apps to shore up their business models instead of trying something revolutionary. Ironically, even The Economist — which says media companies need to “reorient themselves towards serving readers rather than advertisers, embrace social features and collaboration… and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism” — has a metered pay wall, an approach it praises in its piece on financial solutions for new media. The magazine also still doesn’t identify most of its writers (although it has started doing so for bloggers).

The “Foxification” of media

One of the issues some critics have with the explosion of “democratized media” is brought up by The Economist in its piece on transparency as a replacement for objectivity (an idea described by David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and also promoted by new-media analysts such as Jeff Jarvis). Because there are so many sources of information now, many media outlets seem to be moving towards a more opinionated approach to the news — the so-called “Foxification” effect. The magazine argues that this is ultimately a good thing, provided media entities disclose their biases and opinions up front, so that readers can make their own decisions about whom to believe.

Whether we like it or not — and whether traditional media can figure out a way to take advantage of it or not — The Economist is right when it says we have in many ways returned to the coffeehouse era of the early 19th century, when all news was social and most of it was opinionated. And while some worry that media consumers are going to get caught in an “echo chamber” and filter out any opinions they disagree with (something author Eli Pariser argues in his book The Filter Bubble), the main benefit that we have over our counterparts in the 19th century is we have hundreds or even thousands of different sources and voices at our fingertips, if we want to make use of them.

That is an incredibly powerful force both for journalism and for society as a whole — as the events of the Arab Spring have shown, despite the skepticism of some pundits like Malcolm Gladwell — and it is one we are still only beginning to understand.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kelly Teague and jphilipg