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Monday, May 23, 2005

Reflections on the Death of Old Media
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There's been a lot written in recent months about the "death of old media" in general and the demise of newspapers in particular. Regardless of where you get your news, the headlines all scream that the days of old media are numbered. Here's a small sample of some of my recent favorites:

>"The Collapse of Big Media" (a special cover story / feature section in the most recent Wilson Quarterly)
>"Newspapers Struggle to Avoid Their Own Obit" (Christian Science Monitor, 4/25)
> "Print Insists It's Here to Stay" (New York Times, 5/2)
> "Unread and Unsubscribing" (a George Will Washington Post column, 4/24)
> "Newspaper Circulation Dives As Readers Get News From Web Sites" Investors' Business Daily, 5/16)
> "Farewell to Newspapers: Will Increased News Options on the Web Lead to the Death of Newspapers?" (Michael Malone on ABC News.com, 5/24)
> "Hard News: Daily Papers Face Unprecedented Competition Including From Their Own Online Offspring" (Washington Post, 2/20)

Again, that's just a small sample. Every day there seems to be another person wanting to pen old media's obituary. In fact, today's Wall Street Journal featured an entire pull-out section entitled "How Old Media Can Survive in a New World." The story's subtitle was the real kicker: "The Digital Revolution Threatens to Push the Traditional Newspaper, Television, Music and Advertising Industries Into the Dustbin of History."

Wow. "The dustbin of history." Isn't that where old communist countries go when they die? Are old media providers and outlets really heading for a similar fate?

As all these stories suggest, there are certainly good reasons to believe that could be the case. For newspapers and magazines, circulation numbers continue to drop faster than Tom Delay's poll numbers. And broadcast television and radio are suffering a similar fate as millions of viewers and listeners take advantage of alternative distribution outlets (like cable TV or satellite radio) and innovative new technologies (like I-Pods and the many other portable media devices on the market today).

In my new book, Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership, I dedicate two chapters to the amazing technological changes taking place today that are revolutionizing the global media marketplace. Ironically, I devoted that much ink to this point because there exists a handful of media critics out there who believe that all these new information outlets and entertainment technologies have done nothing to alter the power of the old media incumbents. But as the headlines I've just cited make clear, fewer and fewer people take that viewpoint seriously anymore. Things have just change too much, too fast to believe that old media is not seriously threatened by new technologies and media outlets, including the Internet.

At this point, however, I'm starting to believe that some folks might be going a bit overboard with these pronouncements that old media is dead. More specifically, I think they fail to separate old media from its core products: reporting and entertainment. There will always exist a market for good reporting and popular entertainment. People have long respected The New York Times not because of the paper it is printed on, but because of the amazing content that filled its pages. Even if those tangible pages disappear, the Times' great reporting will still be in demand. The same is true of the news in your local papers, it's just that you won't necessarily need to have a big wad of paper delivered to your front door each day to get that local news from your old "paper." They'll just deliver it to you in a different fashion.

The same goes for movies and music. Each sector is in the midst of gut-wrenching changes that will forever change the way they do business. But that does not mean that their core product--popular entertainment--will disappear. People are always going to want to be entertained, and in the future they will expect the content to be delivered to them on their terms in a highly specialized fashion. This is something the "old media" providers will still be very good at, it's just that they will need to change their business models significantly to adjust to the new realities of our hyper-personalized media world.

All I'm saying here is that the death of "old media" has been greatly exaggerated. It is not old media that is dying, it's that old distribution techniques are dying, or at least changing significantly. In some cases--like broadcast radio--it may be that the distribution technology and the very industry itself are indistinguishable and, therefore, it may largely disappear over time.

But I'm confident that even traditional over-the-air radio and television broadcasters have a fighting chance in the future if they are granted the flexibility to use their resources to meet new challenges. These old media providers are constrained not just by aging business models, but by decades of misguided federal regulation that limit their ability to adapt to new technological changes and business threats. Namely, they have almost zero flexibility to use their spectrum for alternative uses. Under current federal regulations, for example, it would be a crime for a licensed radio broadcaster used their spectrum for any other purpose than just over-the-air radio. Does that make any sense? Of course not, but that's the way the law works. Imagine if a TV or radio broadcaster could experiment with their spectrum, divide it up, and use portions of it for alternative services. That might give them a fighting chance in the new media marketplace. But federal law will not allow it and continues to tie their hands in this fight.

But that could change in coming years, and I believe it will, as policy makers come to realize that federal regulations are suffocating innovation by old industry players. The question is: How long will lawmakers wait before loosening the chains that bind these media operators? Will this play out the way railroad deregulation did, with federal officials only freeing the industry after it was already largely doomed? Must an industry absolutely be on its deathbed before it gets regulatory relief?

I hope that is not the case because there is something radically unfair about tying the hands of old industry players just because they once ruled the world. And now that new, unregulated technologies and players are kicking butt and taking names, a regulatory policy handicapping the older players is even more unjust.

In sum, "old media" aren't quite dead yet and they continue to offer products that millions of Americans enjoy. But their primary modes of distribution are dying and need to be reworked so they can meet the formidable challenges they face today. Federal law should not stand in their way.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 7:46 PM | Mass Media

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