If our politicians aren’t using or can’t explore the opportunities afforded by social media, how is the media going with the same task, particularly when it comes to political journalism?
One interpretation of IT development and the emergence of new media in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that it has been a battle of connectivity platforms — and one that has increasingly been about personalisation. Various powerful companies tried hard to lock online media users into one single, all-purpose platform for interacting with everything else in the media (or, increasingly, the rest of their lives as well).
Microsoft looked set to achieve this for much of the 1990s but was brought undone by the internet. Rupert Murdoch, dear analog-era Rupert, spoke about making News Ltd products the complete package for the discerning media consumer.
Then Apple, which always had its own half-arsed suite of connective tools, offered iTunes and its mobile devices, which rocketed it into the big leagues. By that stage Google had monetised the appeal to both consumers and advertisers of personalised searching for information. Now Facebook, having seen off rival social media, has begun its own quest for total domination of connectivity.
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Meantime, consumers seized control of their audio-visual consumption through both legal and illegal means. Major content production companies — including News Ltd — badly missed the chance to match the iTunes model and use this to establish a competitive platform.
Each stage has witnessed a further step in consumer control of their media consumption and usage, except in relation to their own privacy, which has been traded off as part-payment for ever-greater personalisation.
Now Twitter goes beyond RSS and offers near complete consumer sovereignty over what they consume, unless media companies are smart enough to keep their content-makers entirely off Twitter and prevent their content from being linked to by anyone else. But follow the right people and outlets and Twitter is now a one-stop shop for a vast diversity of news and opinion — all shaped by your own preferences and prejudices.
In coming decades there’ll be multiple generations of consumers for whom the act of obtaining news from a newspaper, or even a newspaper site, will seem the equivalent of writing with quill and ink.
The vexing question, as you know, is who will pay for producing the content as this sort of personalisation trashes mainstream media revenues (trashing, incidentally, that won’t be prevented by rushing out apps that inflict ads on users).
It’s a particularly relevant question for political journalists because it costs a lot to produce political coverage and it doesn’t interest audiences anywhere near as much as it used to.
The answer is, probably, no one apart from non-commercial sources like public broadcasters. And we won’t really notice the difference. The slow death of the commercial mainstream media is getting us used to life without it. More than half of the journalism of some newspapers is PR-initiated anyway. And media diversity is undercut by the increasingly dogmatic tone of some outlets, which have become so predictable as to obviate the need to bother reading them.
But personalisation means the outlets wither, but popular content-makers will prosper. People will pay for the content-makers they like — the journalists and commentators that appeal to consumers because of what they say or how they say it. And Twitter’s combination of broadcast medium — say something and it can potentially be retweeted to vast numbers of people — and personal interaction is a killer app in this regard — I can promote one of my inevitably witless pieces of commentary to thousands of people, and then argue with people about it on the same platform, to the extent that arguing about anything inside 140 characters is possible.
Outlets will only prosper if they can aggregate popular content providers, AKA “brands”. It’s already happening. Don’t like Andrew Bolt? Bad luck. Get used to him and others like him. The Bolt brand drives lots of traffic. Bolt offers certainty. Certainty has always sold well. But the best part about certainty is that it’s cheap. You don’t have to do too much time consuming, expensive research or have good contacts to be certain. In fact, it’s a hindrance — it introduces unwanted shades of grey.
In fact certainty will be one of the key media offerings of the future, particularly in regard to political journalism. The traditional mainstream media political journalism model involved a small number of middle-aged white male journalists and editors deciding what consumers needed to see and hear, acting as gatekeepers and interlocutors for viewers, mediating democracy via their interviews with middle-aged white male politicians.
The future model will be an inversion, in which there are so many “gatekeepers” that you pick and choose the ones that give you what you want. But a lot of consumers still want certainty. Being able to offer it will be a key selling point. Even outlets will be able to do this, not just individual journalists and commentators. The outlet can become the “brand” itself. People say The Australian will close when Rupert dies or his mother dies, that it loses too much money. But I think that gives News Ltd too little credit for how savvy they have been — perhaps unknowingly — in future-proofing their titles.
Like The Guardian, another outlet of eminently predictable reportage and commentary, the very predictability of outlets like The Australian, the certainty that it offers, will become increasingly valuable as brands proliferate.
That leaves politicians, traditionally dependent on the mainstream media to reach mass audiences, with two options.
One is to cling ever more tightly to the few remaining mass media outlets and protect them for as long as possible from the threat of new media. We can call that the Conroy Model, after its most enthusiastic current practitioner. The other is to embrace the connectivity potential of new media and establish their own communities for communication — understanding that as part of the deal the communication will be two-way. They will also sacrifice some control to voters who will no longer be passive recipients of their broadcast message but active controllers of what they see and hear.
How many are ready for the latter? At the moment, clinging to the dying media is a much easier option. But it will only get tougher.