Every so often an author explains our culture in such an original way that from that day on we see the world around us in a new, if not clearer, light. This can be especially true when the topic is the business of media, because its influence is a thread woven intricately into our daily routine. Yet some are able to help us to see—as most of us aren’t able in our daily interactions with it—that its contours are changing all the time.
“Mega Media,” by Nancy Maynard, is a book that comes close to achieving this quality. The book is the outcome of a lengthy investigation and exploration which provides us with unique insights into the manner in which market forces, piggybacked on new technology, are transforming how news is gathered, delivered and consumed. It provides an informed outlook on the evolving business strategies that shape the media and affect the manner in which we get news now and in what directions media entities are likely to head in the future.
After 30 long years of personal experience in the media—as a reporter, publisher, consultant and author—there is little doubt that Maynard knows something about the news business. The book testifies to this. Clearly, she knows enough and has done sufficient research (her interviews for the book date back to 1997) to make a compelling case about future media trends.
While the hammering of information technology stocks on the Nasdaq might have taken the sheen off the new economy, there is no doubt that the Internet has set in motion structural change within the media. Basic notions such as “readership” and “circulation” have given way to new generation terms such as “eyeballs” and “page-views.” “The user”—a term that implies interaction—replaces “the reader,” and publishing is now in real time and not necessarily on newsprint. The classifieds, the mainstay of newspapers, are fast being chewed away by digital competition and this, in turn, tosses up more financial challenges than opportunities. And, in no time, with the onset of convergence, there will not be any distinction in terms of how the news is delivered as television, the Internet and print will be squeezed out of the same tube. And this “tube” will be always on and ready to go.
It is anybody’s guess as to where these changes will eventually lead. It is precisely for this reason that “Mega Media” is an important and good read. Without getting bogged down in the jargon of the digital age, the book brings the reader along on a ride through the contentious issues facing American media. While it is difficult to imagine an identical situation being replicated in other countries, there is no doubt that broad parallels can be drawn to help those of us who live in foreign lands comprehend and forecast—to some extent—the direction and speed of these changes in our surroundings.
The book includes a chronology of developments in the U.S. media. Because it sweeps across all segments of the media, it becomes a must-read for the uninitiated. For practitioners, Maynard’s claims—some of which are provocative—are equally interesting to read. It is, for example, her contention that increasing corporate ownership of newspapers has not led, as some charge it has, to cutbacks of resources devoted to news coverage. Neither she nor those who disagree with her really have enough data at this point to back up either side of this ongoing argument.
Maynard devotes nearly three-quarters of her book to examining the impact of the digital age on the news business. She focuses on the impact of the new media on the existing genre of journalism. Traditionally, news has not necessarily been what newspapers publish or broadcasters air. Now, with digitization, this impact is even more amplified. As a result, the public now pays attention to a few major events or disasters, other matters we want to know about in the moment, plus more topics we stumble upon across the way. In other words, it is the public that controls what it wants to know or doesn’t want to know. “That’s a simple proposition on its face but one with potentially seismic consequences for news as we know it. It promises to change everything about the way journalists identify, organize, package and produce the news, 24-hour news cycles notwithstanding,” she writes.
As might be expected, and as most of us witness in the newsrooms, there is resistance to change. Maynard refers to this when she writes about how journalists react to the same kind of events that they document dispassionately in their reporting. “These gatekeepers of civic literacy have become, instead, gatekeepers of generation-based traditions, unable to adapt their professional principles to changing times.” According to her, it is not just frontline journalists but editors, too, who stand to be redefined in the new media environment. In a new management system, spurred on by a digital medium that allows users to “personalize” their home page, Maynard writes that “the editor, once archbishop of information, recedes in importance.”
It is inevitable that all of these changes impinge on the traditional ethics of journalism. Running an advertisement on a traditional news page is very different from inserting it in the same page view. Given the increasing presence of e-commerce, the user, unlike the newspaper reader, is only a click away from the product. Is this fair? Maynard has no answers, but provides insight: “As news-media companies develop an array of new marketing and advertising practices, they will need to negotiate new standards and write new rules to compete in the digital information age both profitably and honorably.” In a chapter devoted to a discussion of advertising and the changing ground rules, Maynard writes that “Clearly, businesses can target potential customers more discreetly online than in broadcast or in print. Advertisers will pay premiums for reliable niche audiences, so the new environment could support niche revenue flow at the expense of mass appeals.”
The book’s weakness—especially since it sets out to take such a sweeping view of these changes—is its inability to pinpoint a successful financial model in the world of new media. While most in media management have seized the fact that the Internet can no longer be ignored as an alternative medium, almost no one has come up with a financially viable vehicle. Inevitably, the survivors have been those which have sprung up as an offshoot of a well-established media organization. This provides sufficient financial muscle to absorb the bleed as well as “brand” identity to attract consumers.
In the final analysis, “Mega Media” offers no quick how-to-do-it advice or experience. Yet it is a useful tool because the insights it provides help us better understand the media business as it continues to evolve during the 21st century.
Anil Padmanabhan is a 2001 Nieman Fellow. He is the economic affairs editor for Business Standard and is based in New Delhi. Business Standard is an economic daily published out of Six Metros in India and with an established presence on the Web.