Half a century ago, print ruled. And the
most successful newspaper in the English speaking world was the London’s Daily
One of the reasons for its success was that
it knew the limits of its power. A fiftieth anniversary history of the paper by
its legendary editorial director Hugh Cudlipp, published in 1953, sketched out
just what media can and cannot do. “However brilliantly or subtly it may be
conducted a press campaign will fail if it flies in the face of public opinion;
if it advocates a course of action which the average reader instinctively
rejects as unfair or imprudent; or if it deals with an aspect of life beyond
the readers’ daily experience or interest,” he wrote.
The same rules apply today. Support from
News Limited papers for a republic did not swing the 1999 referendum.
The nature of media itself is very
different now, too. And that means its power is different, too. “We will not
see the likes of Packer again,” The Australian’s editorial claimed last year
when the Channel 9 proprietor died. Not because of the undeniable force of his
personality, the manner in which he projected it and his unmatched skill in
games of bluff, but because of the challenges the medium he mastered,
Rupert’s big enough to shrug of anything –
and his leader writers are correct. Technology is reshaping the way information
and entertainment are delivered… It is increasingly hard for governments to
protect established providers from new competitors in the way politicians of
both political persuasions helped Packer over many years… it seems the
obsolescence of the business model Packer was devoted to is imminent.
Free-to-air TV is at real risk of being overtaken by on-line broadcasting…”
In the years following its introduction,
television supplanted newspapers as the most powerful medium. But now both
media and markets are being shattered by technology that lets consumers choose
and use the information and entertainment they want when they want to from an
almost limitless range of sources.
Wired magazine, the techie’s bible, has
dubbed this “egocasting…the
consumption of on-demand music, movies, television, and other media that cater
to individual and not mass-market tastes.”
Four fundamental things are happening that
force us to reconsider our impressions of the power of the media and the people
who control it.
Firstly, technology that gives customers
access to content from anywhere in the world means monopolies are fragmenting
and markets are being reshaped.
This means traditional media relationships
are being equally dramatically altered, too. “Instead of beginning their day
with coffee and the newspaper, there to read what editors have selected for
their enlightenment, people, and young people in particular, wait for a free
moment to go online,” American author and academic Joseph Epstein claimed in
Commentary magazine earlier this year.
The providers of media are changing as
well. Big media is increasingly controlled by corporations, not individuals.
This means the deals prime ministers and proprietors may have been able to
strike in the past behind closed doors are increasingly hard to broker.
Finally, there’s the issue of content. “Our
business is reporting news and creating entertainment,” Rupert Murdoch told BBC
Radio in a rare interview at the beginning of the year. Note that mix?
“The media is dumbing down as owners,
editors, producers and journalists respond to what they perceive, perhaps
correctly, to be the desires of their audiences,” our own Eric Beecher has said.
“This metamorphosis is reshaping journalism for the simple reason that
journalism no longer retains its place at the centre of media power. Today a
media corporation trades in many different currencies and journalism is no
longer the biggest of these – entertainment is.”
Beecher points to the growing evidence that people in advanced Western
countries are losing interest in current affairs. “Relatively few people,
especially those under the age of forty, care about the subjects that matter to
serious journalists. As a result, they regard traditional high-end media as
increasingly irrelevant to their lives.”
This high end product, in the past, has
been the centre of power for media and the moguls. Now, things are changing.
Financial success in the media comes from
giving consumers what they want, not telling them want to think.
Perhaps Coonan wants to put the customer
first. What a radical media policy!