The demise of traditional media causes anxiety – maybe it shouldn’t.

15Jun09

(cross-posted on The Mark)

When I first started my current job as an Online Community Facilitator, someone in his 60s said to me, “I understand why op-eds matter; I just don’t think that a blog matters.”

This shocked me. I thought it was obvious to everyone that traditional media was rapidly losing the competition with online media. If an op-ed matters, then a well-written blog matters (though on any given day I might argue that neither of them matters).

But the shift to digital culture has been so huge that it has opened up a massive generation gap – a point brought home to me again by the reaction of most of my over-40 colleagues and friends to the imminent demise of CanWest. The shock and anxiety they feel – even those who despise media concentration and everything CanWest stands for – puzzles me.

I guess this is because I can’t remember those halcyon days when newspapers were honest and true and exposed the corruption at the root of our society, creating a modern acropolis. I assume that those days existed, because lots of people (philosopher Jurgen Habermas, for instance) say they did. But for all of my adult life I’ve taken it for granted that if I wanted to know the “real story” about something, I would have to be savvy about cobbling it together myself from different sources. And if I was going to get part of it through a newspaper, I would have to wade through a lot more populist trash and partisan hackery than was often worth my time.

I haven’t touched a print newspaper in several years – and I’ve never, in my memory, touched a CanWest one. I also can’t remember the last time I saw a CanWest channel on TV, unless I was on the plane. I’m mostly outside the reach of that octopus, though there are two regular exceptions: local papers staring mockingly out of newspaper boxes in Vancouver; and the Full Comment section of The National Post online.

Why the National Post online? First, because it’s well-adapted to the online environment – it’s frequently updated with good use of RSS feeds and, most importantly, a total unleashing of the ego. Second, because I think it’s important to read things I (mostly) disagree with.

Where I do sympathize with anxiety about the end of traditional media is with the concern that, in the online environment, most people don’t read things that they disagree with. Or if they do, it’s so they can write angry, idiotic 140-character rants in reply. This is definitely a problem, but it’s not a problem traditional media somehow had under control before the Interweb came along and screwed everything up.

Traditional media has to experiment within the online environment. This is indisputable. CanWest will fail (sooner or later) not just because they placed profits before people, but because the new media environment demands innovation, and that’s something big institutions are really terrible at. Experiments like The REAL News, The Tyee, ProPublica and The Mark itself are promising. But if what we really want is media that improves the health of our society, the first question we need to answer isn’t “How do we get paid to do online what we were doing in print?” but rather “How do we use these new tools to convene diverse groups of people for meaningful conversations online?”

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