New old medi-ation

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The post below; the email responses I’ve gotten to it; and the ongoing citizen journalists v. mainstream media debate that won’t die jolted me into a revelation this morning:

The whole debate is damned silly. "Citizen Journalists" are, if stand-alone, small publishers. And if contributing to the MSM, they’re freelancers; stringers. It’s nothing even remotely new. It’s just more broadly distributed. And in some cases, the currency isn’t cash. But otherwise, it’s a long-standing arrangement.

Now some, like Jeff Jarvis, see all this upheaval as an end of so-called traditional media and a return to a more natural conversation:

We are headed into the post-media age.

When you think
about it, media are the artificial inventions of their means of
distribution: Books begat authors; fast and cheap presses enabled
reporters and press barons; TV bore anchors. But there is nothing to
say that these media are preordained as the best methods of sharing
knowledge and getting things done in society. They were the convenient
ways. Emphasis on the past tense.

The natural means of
interaction and of sharing information is, of course, conversation,
through the ability to ask and answer questions, to impart and collect
knowledge…

…Media changed that. Media made society one-way.

But
now the internet drains the one-way pipes of media and pours us all in
the same pond together. The internet enables conversation.

The internet is not a medium. It is the thing that challenges media.

While I think Jarvis is (as usual) basically right, in this case, I think that what’s missing is the fact that the myriad online conversations make media, for now, more necessary than ever. And even a would-be revolutionary like me realizes that as a business in a capitalist environment, Mr. Media will adapt to his new role. The slow pace of bloated, publicly traded companies opens a window for entrepreneurs like us.

(As an aside, check out this week’s On The Media interview with Paul Starr: Well, one of the things, I think, that’s good about the American
pattern is that we generally haven’t let the company or companies that
dominate a prior technology from also controlling a new technology. So
if you think about it, the post office didn’t get control of the
telegraph … Western Union didn’t get
control of the telephone. And then Bell Telephone didn’t get control of
broadcasting.)

But as much as I’d like to say we’re inventing fire, the wheel and a cure for cancer, the truth is that we’re leapfrogging down a path that MSM companies would follow if they didn’t have such short-term entrenched-model  o’er-hyphenated profit pressures and will follow within five years. We think there’s a huge opportunity in doing so.

So what is this new old role for old new media? I’ll start with a seeming non-sequitir, a warning for both myself and my media-obsessed bretheren, who mostly dwell on the coasts:

I live in a major metro. I run with a relatively tech-savvy crowd. And most of my friends don’t know RSS from USB. They look at the URL for del.icio.us and don’t know how to pronounce it, much less use it. Further, they don’t care to. For every tag-obsessed blogger, there’s a busy young professional or soccer mom who doesn’t care about a communications or social revolution — she just wants information that’s useful to her without having to think much about how to get at it.

We have a friend who is a smart, successful attorney. She’s a customer that media outlets and advertisers covet. She’s relatively net-savvy. She sends pictures out via Flickr. She invites people to parties via Evite. She subscribes to magazines, but doesn’t read them unless she’s on a plane. She reads mountains of documents for work, and gets what news she gets online. And if I suggested to her that she take time to configure a newsreader or set up tag searches, she’d tell me to stuff it. But, I firmly believe that if she found an online source that tailored itself to her myriad interests, filtered out the junk (which to others may be gold), and told her when Neiman’s was running a shoe sale, she’d read it more than any source she has now.

So how is a tidal wave of information, widely distributed, going to help folks like this? And how can a completely open network seamlessly target information that’s relevant without creating some really scary privacy issues?

That’s were Mr. Media comes in.  As Jarvis suggests, media as we know it had become a top-down speech. Now it’s a conversation again, as I’d argue it was at small-town, and non-monopoly news towns years ago. But there are so many speakers, that someone has to divide the signal from the noise — Not, as in the past, based purely on editorial judgment, but on individual relevance.

Media still exists, and will, if not forever, for some time to come. Instead of an edict, it’s now a much-needed filter. But a filter that the individual must be able to calibrate, and must be able to do so effortlessly.

In the end, I think it’s easy to agree that we all want conversations. What’s harder is getting people to work at their end of that conversation. Assuming that most will do so is, I think, the road to a failed business plan.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.