I was listening to a podcast NPR this morning¬† called “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media.” It’s an hour long, so for those of you with better things to do I’ll summarize:

This exercise was structured as an “Oxford-style debate” with three old media proponents arguing for the the statement “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media” and three new media advocates arguing against the statement.

The main positions for the statement “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media”:

  • New media has injected new vitality and competition into news.
  • Because of new media there is now a greater diversity of ideas and viewpoints.
  • As new media matures, it will take over the social responsibilities of old media.
  • You can’t cover any news if you aren’t in business and old media is dying financially.
  • The best fact checking has been done online.
  • Old Media is slow, detached and monolithic.
  • Journalism isn’t going away in new media.

The main positions against the statement “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media”:

  • Mainstream media is more effective at standing up to big institutions like governments and corporations.
  • Good thorough journalism requires deeper pockets.
  • New media is just an aggregation of mainstream media.
  • With new media people tend to isolate their news consumption to only the views they want to hear.

Here are a few points made that weren’t explicitly for or against the statement:

  • New and old media are converging.
  • The editorial process is shifting to the consumers of news.
  • The audience has shifted to the web and that audience is worth less (to publishers) on the web.

While entertaining, it is silly to structure this discussion in the debate format. Obviously, mainstream media (MMS) is changing and new media is, well, new. This should be a conversation about the evolution of media, not whether the inevitable change is good or bad.

What what missing from this debate is a more thorough conversation of the economics driving the change.  MMS advertising revenue is coming down. David Carr of the New York Times sums this up nicely when he says

“The audience has switched to the web. The audience that is worth $1 in print is worth a dime and sometimes a penny on the web.”

Why is MMS (Mainstream Media) advertising revenue in free fall?

1. The monopoly of MMS as the sole news content providers has been broken. The news is no longer controlled by a handful of players at the world, regional and local levels. Anyone with a Facebook account is publishing content. Now, content runs the gamut from great journalism down to excruciating daily minutiae a la Twitter and Facebook. This massive explosion of information has created a nearly infinite pool of ad space, which drives down the value of a generic impression.

2. Advertising on MMS is a very poor way of reaching a targeted audience. Sure advertisers can reach 3 million people by taking an ad out in Time Magazine, but it’s much better to reach 300,000 people who actually care might be interested in the advertiser. Targeted advertising is obviously far easier online.

3. Distribution costs and margins are often very close to zero online. Some publishers are happy if their advertising revenue covers their hosting cost. Often, advertising profit isn’t the motive for small publishers. That makes it tough for MMS, with huge overhead and disgruntled shareholders, to compete.

Let’s take a look at David Carr’s statement:

“The audience that is worth $1 in print is worth a dime and sometimes a penny on the web.”

While this is certainly true from the New York Times’ perspective, it isn’t the whole story. An audience can actually worth more online, since data allows for much better targeting. The problem for large publishers is that the dollar they used to get from an audience is now split up into a hundred pennies. Small publishers are picking up those pennies and new media companies like Google and Facebook are amassing valuable data and picking up the dimes. People aren’t going to read the entire New York Times on a Sunday afternoon anymore. People will gather news from a hundred sources: RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, Google News etc.

Since I think that the new media folks’ points were right on, I want to address the points made by the proponents of MMS:

“MMS is more effective at standing up to powerful institutions”
Not really. The only reason MMS is effective at standing up to big institutions is because of their ability to reach voters or consumers. The collective megaphone of digital media is just as powerful and it has the ability to cover a lot more stories.

“MMS has better journalism”
True, so far. But journalists aren’t going to need MMS to get their paycheck anymore. Anyone who generates an audience will be able to generate a paycheck. The ones who get a bigger (or more valuable) audience will get a bigger paycheck.

“New media is just an aggregation of mainstream media”
MMS was mostly an aggregation of MMS. One story is often syndicated thousands of times in MMS. Aggregation and filtering are still going to be important aspects of new media and new media will increasingly provide original content in the future.

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