Ask most people who think of themselves as new media experts what the greatest change in the media has been in the past 35 years, and you’ll hear such answers as “the Internet,” “social media,” “search engines,” or “iPhones.”
The greatest change has been that people’s access to media has changed from scarcity to surfeit. It’s an even bigger change than Gutenberg’s invention of a practical printing press, the invention of writing, or even the first Neolithic cave paintings. It’s the greatest change in all of media history. And it occurred in only 35 years — half a human lifespan.
Thirty-five years ago, the average American who wanted the most up-to-date information read the one or two daily newspapers that were distributed in his town. Only 40 of the 1,500 largest U.S. cities and towns had more than one local daily newspaper (less than 18 do today). National newspapers “The New York Times” and “The Wall Street Journal” weren’t distributed far beyond metropolitan New York and “USA Today” didn’t yet exist.
He could have watched the two to four television channels that were broadcast in his town. There wasn’t any cable or satellite television back then, and only 10 cities had more than four local television stations. These channels offered 30 minutes of local news broadcast three times daily, plus a 30-minute national newscast once an evening. The rest of their broadcasts were general-interest programming that tried to appeal to everyone.
He also could have listened to any of approximately a dozen AM or FM radio stations whose signals were locally receivable during the day. Some smaller stations were required to reduce their wattage at sunset, so in the evening he might have been able to receive some other major cities’ stations as well.
Then in the 1970s media scarcity began to end. The ’70s saw the rise of cable television (with satellite television to follow much later), with dozens, and later hundreds, of channels. These new channels were specifically topical, from cartoons, biographies, and cooking channels to channels dedicated to topic niches, like business news, tennis, golf, and specific cuisines.
The 1980s brought developments in offset lithography, which made producing topical magazines economical. American newsstands that used to sell only a dozen or two titles now sold hundreds, almost all about specific topics.
The 1990s brought the Internet. The average American gained access to tens of millions (now a quarter billion) active Web sites and millions of blogs. If there were particular topics that always interested him, he’d now find hundreds of sites devoted to that topic. The Internet also gave him access to the Web sites of every daily newspaper, news magazine, and broadcast station in the world, not just to those locally distributed or broadcast.
And the current decade has given him that Internet access at broadband speeds. Now, he has always-on live access to basically the entire world’s information — a quarter billion Web sites, plus access to hundreds of millions of video clips, movies, and streaming signals from almost all of the world’s radio stations and thousands of the world’s television stations. And he can now have all that in new mobile phones or other portable devices.
The Library of Congress last year announced that more information is now available online than in all the world’s books combined. If Gutenberg’s printing press sparked the Renaissance, what will instant live access anywhere to all the information in the world spark? How will access to all that information and media change civilization and societies?
More than 1 billion people have Internet access, nearly a billion have cable TV, hundreds of millions have satellite TV, and who knows how many read topical magazines. Moreover, as all that information becomes available on the world’s 3.4 billion mobile phones, half of the world’s 6.6 billion people will have instant access anywhere to all the world’s information. What a change within merely half a human lifespan! The majority of humanity has gone from having scarce access to information to an overload of it.
Each person has naturally gravitated to whatever mix of media best matches his unique, and often changing, mix of common, group, and topical interests. We use search engines, program our TV remote control’s “favorite channels” button, and so on to satisfy our individual interests. We no longer have to rely on one-size-fits-all programming, such as daily newspapers and the old TV channels.
Old media’s mass audiences appears to be fracturing. I say “appears,” because there have always been as many fragments as there have been individuals. Back when people had little choice, all those individuals being some sort of a mass was the real illusion.
And the oddest thing in the past 35 years has been that old media didn’t appear to notice the shift. They thought any change was merely about new ways to distribute traditional packages of one-size-fits-all information, packages whose purpose the real change has made obsolete.
Traditional general-interest media have tried to continue operating as if nothing had fundamentally changed. They failed to see and adapt to the greatest change.
There now are many well-meaning attempts to save the newspaper industry, but these are unwitting attempts to save obsolete packages. Moreover, most newspaper publishers are still willingly blind to the change; many now want to charge for their obsolete packages put online, even though ever fewer people have been willing to pay for it in print since the 1980s.
Finally, almost all attempts to save newspapers misconstrue “journalism” to mean “newspapers,” as if there can be no other basic vehicle for journalism. It’s like misconstruing “transportation” to mean “horse.” Humanity might have depended on the horse for transportation for millennia, but we now have better methods for getting around.
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