Kill trees, roll tape

Traditional media can't die out until the masses value immediacy and interactivity to the point of need
  • Tom Yager (InfoWorld)
  • 25 January, 2007 15:47

Early advocates of a pervasive online culture cast the stereotype of mainstream media outlets as closed-minded, slow, dictatorial, William Randolph Hearst-style machines bent on shutting out differing viewpoints and smaller voices. More sober minds saw traditional media less as an enemy of free expression than a horse and buggy. However, advancing technology is only an enabler of societal evolution. By itself, technology does not spawn evolution on a societal level. That requires need and availability.

There is no question that the Internet has addressed the technical limitations of traditional media. You couldn't remake a newspaper, radio station, magazine, or TV station into a wide open information source that is updated every microsecond. Methods of gathering and delivering information via scheduled publication and broadcast can't match the immediacy and inclusiveness of the Internet. With traditional media, all news is old, very few voices are heard and every outlet can be said to have an agenda. If these are the problems, the Internet holds the solutions. But there are still those matters of need and availability.

For the great majority of Americans, information and opinion are delivered the same way they have been since the 1950s. People still listen to the radio in the shower and on the drive to and from work. They read the paper with breakfast and on the train, eat dinner with the TV news on, and divide the sections of the Sunday paper among pajama-clad companions. Some people enjoy the process of interactively selecting and prioritizing the information sources they use. In the main, the process of staying informed is passive. TV and radio are media we consume while our hands are busy with other things, when interaction with our information sources would be impractical or intrusive.

Because I work in print media, it would be tacky to trumpet the advantages unique to magazines, except for one advantage that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere: You can finish reading a magazine. If it weren't for the ability to read Newsweek and the few other magazines that I read cover to cover, I'd be online day and night. Traditional media snips the fuse on the three-click phenomenon: Clicking through three hyperlinks will often take you someplace that causes you to forget what you hit the Internet to study. Publications, TV, and radio broadcasts need replacing because their content is finite, but at least when you're finished reading, watching or listening, you get back to your work or your life.

The case for a faster and more inclusive, more interactive means of staying informed and informing others is easy to make among with readily available access to the necessary technology. Most people can afford a television. Anyone who can read can have a newspaper waiting at their door. In contrast, people have no control over access to broadband Internet, and, unfairly, the most informative content is tailored for broadband users. Using the Net is painful at 256Kbps or less. Dial-up is the Internet ghetto. What kind of connectivity you get is decided by telcos, cable companies, landlords, and income.

The Internet is the right vehicle for carrying information to the masses, but traditional media, as technologically backward and restrictive as it is, can't die out until the masses value immediacy and interactivity to the point of need, and everyone can get access to the Net for the price of a subscription to the local paper.