Lunch Notes on Threats to Old Media

Meandering lunch conversation with my boss and Dave Winer, who paid us an informal visit. Got talking about plummeting newspaper subscription rates, the mainstream-ification of blogging, the question of credibility in a world where traditional journalism is less valued by the readership while the credibility of expert bloggers is rising.

All of this got me thinking about parallels between the music industry and journalism in an age when the internet is slowly but surely interring the old institutions. If the traditional music industry is threatened by the rise of home-recording software + internet distribution models, the industry replies, “Well, you still need us to wade through all the crap for you, to bring the good stuff to the fore.” To which we reply, “You’re the ones who are bringing us the crap!”

Meanwhile, at sites like, the public is deciding what’s worth listening to. Artists are made popular by being downloaded — the good stuff (using a loose definition of “good” here) bubbles organically to the top, rather than being force-fed, top-down. So the traditional music industry is needed neither for recording technology, nor for distribution, nor for editorial buffering.

A recent Wired piece about blew my mind. The Hit Factory:

… nearly 400,000 of the site’s roughly 30 million user pages belong to bands. [myspace] racked up 9.4 billion pageviews in August – more than Google – and new users are signing up at a stunning rate of 3.5 million a month. … The site hosts 12 percent of all ads on the Web.

One could argue (or predict) that blogging could ultimately do to traditional news what myspace is doing to music.

If 95% of blogs are crap, then so probably are 95% of the bands on myspace. But in both cases, the public decides which 5% are worth listening to / reading. The credibility of the 5% is sui generis — not bestowed by the imprimatur of old media, but earned.

Where the parallel breaks down is that the music industry has been largely evil, while journalism has been largely a force for good (the majority of journalists aren’t doing what they do for money or fame, and the best music comes from artists driven first to create, second to make a living). I find myself secretly rooting for the demise of the music industry while feeling very nervous about the parallel threat to journalism.

Music: The Minutemen :: Joe McCarthy’s Ghost

5 Replies to “Lunch Notes on Threats to Old Media”

  1. Scot

    A reporter will always have to be well placed, and somehow he or she needs to make a living even while working on a story that takes months to break. I think the media industries that currently bring news to us are in trouble. With the deregulation of fairness under the Reagan administration, broadcast news has become more and more biased and, I think, less and less respected. As a result we turn to bloggers who, while they may have an agenda, at least they’re not mouthpieces for a political party or large corporations. Ultimately I think we’ll go straight to reporters and cut the middlemen out. Reporters will have their own infrastructure of broadcast (My guess is the podcast model will endure). I think the news companies of today will not retain their level of control of what news gets broadcast. Given that some reporters have been known to embellish and/or make up news whole cloth, I’m not sure that this is a good thing.

    If it sounds like I’ve put a lot of thought into this progression, I have. It’s one of the underlying themes of the novel I’m doing for Nanowrimo this year. The main character was born of the collision of the podcasting meme, a thing I read on Apple’s website about making HD movies in the field, and Jennicam and its ilk.

    Ahem. My wife says I’m as bad talking about my novel-in-progress as a new parent talking about their baby, so back on topic. You say, the music industry is more ‘evil’. Certainly much of their behavior amounts to that, but I don’t think there’s a valid comparison between musicians and journalists. My perception, at least, is that musicians and music are seen more as a luxury than an important part of daily life. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

    As a result, music is far more ‘tainted’ by corporate interest than even the news, because we’ll buy pre-packaged pabulum musically, and until recently with the advent of Fox News, people shied away from such obviously tainted reporting.

    The effect won’t be much different, though. The artists will develop their own infrastructures for releasing music, and the recording industry will either figure out how to adapt to this, or they’ll die. I rather hope the latter, really, from the very beginning they’ve clung to a ‘we make records, damn it’ concept and refused to adapt until the law forced them. This conflict dates back to the early days of radio. I think part of the recording infrastructure will be good advertising, and I suspect a few companies we know today as recording companies will survive in that model. It’s where their value add is anyway. I do not think the companies will retain control of what music gets published the way they have today. I think this is a good thing.


  2. Jim: is your NaNoWriMo novel online for reading? Or will it be when it’s finished?

    I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year – it’s just the wrong time of year in the South Aust. Education System (Year 12 results were due today…fat chance of getting any real writing done before this…).

  3. Jim, it’s interesting that you use the term “reporter” rather than journalist. My boss makes a point of making that distinction as well, in part because “journalist” has so much baggage, and also because reporting is the key aspect. Anyone who does real reporting (which includes disciplined research) can earn credibility, without needing the imprimatur of a J-School or the journalism industry.

    Another important point: While a journalist may be a trained researcher, and may get paid for their time (i.e. they can afford the time to go deep on a story, while a blogger is more often time-limited), the fact remains that a journalist can’t be an expert in everything. A blogger writing about what s/he knows will likely have expertise and knowledge of a topic that a general journalist does not have. Which is why when you read a newspaper story about a topic you know really well, it so often seems thin or weak or even wrong.

    I should have qualified the statement about the music industry being evil – of course not everything they do is evil – we have benefitted greatly from much of what the music industry has done. But they certainly have not been the best friend to the musician, and they don’t necessarily do right by the consumer, either. So that’s a qualified evil.

    Totally agree that the role of musicians and journalists is not entirely analagous. The analogy I’m drawing has more to do with the disintermediation going on in both industries. The institution of the middleman is breaking down as the source takes things into their own sphere of control.

  4. re: nano novel. The intro couple paragraphs are in my profile on Nano (I’m Happy_Hacker there, a sobroquet I’ve used since about 1986, when it meant something different). I don’t really intend to make the novel public now or when it’s done other than those couple paragraphs, as I’d like to sell it when it’s really done. I finished editing my 2004 nano novel in October, and am beginning the search for an agent.


  5. Urg. Forgot to spell check my last comment. Forgot to check to make sure sobriquet means what I think it means (handle, basically) and I’ve butchered the spelling so badly that my dictionary doesn’t recognize it. Le sigh.


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