Monday, June 07, 2010

The New Media Conundrum

Looks like Apple's done it again – satisfied a need consumers didn't even know existed. The successful international launch of the iPad means that Apple has now sold over 2 million iPads in as many months, which is perhaps more than in the entire decade of the tablet's existence.

The hullaballoo surrounding Apple’s magic tablet is deafening. The last time the tech world went into such a tizzy over a new gizmo was when Apple released the iPhone, and we all know how that turned out (hint: well). The iPhone was called the Jesus Phone – as much for the hype surrounding it as for its capabilities – and the iPad might as well be the Jesus Tablet. On its 10-odd-inch screen rests the weight of expectations of just about everyone in the (Western) traditional media industry. So many bastions of the industry, from the New York Times to Wired to book publishers, are looking at the iPad as a saviour, their last chance at survival. But can it really live up to its almost-mythic status as the rescuer of all it purveys? Jury's still out on that one, numbers notwithstanding.

The question is why a miracle device like the iPad is necessary at all. The Pulitzer prizes announced this year are significant in this context. For the first time, a non-profit, online only product won an award for investigative reporting. Another newspaper that won in the breaking news category used new media tools like Twitter and Google Wave to produce its award-winning coverage. It’s no secret that the Internet has changed the way people consume media forever and that it has challenged existing business models, in some cases driving them to the point of extinction. Big media is not exempt from this sea change. The music, movie and publishing industries were hit hard by the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing networks, and every attempt to stem the flow of ‘piracy’ has been unsuccessful. Ridiculous digital rights management strategies have not helped disincentivise the illegal distribution of copyrighted content, either. Newspapers and magazines have seen advertising revenues go into freefall, thus striking at the very heart of their business. This has prompted speculation that content creators are on an inexorable downturn; that, with a shrinking audience and little revenue, they will simply cease to exist.

But media consumption is not declining. The Internet has not killed the movie or music industries (though the fee-paying audience for them might’ve got smaller); even the publishing industry, where revenues and readership had been declining long before the Internet came along, actually recorded an increase in adult readership in recent times.

According to a recent survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism, an overwhelming majority of Americans - 92 per cent - use multiple platforms to get their daily news, and the internet is now the third most-popular news platform. Almost 60 per cent Americans get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day, indicating that in today’s multi-platform media environment, news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory. We may be years from this situation in India, but the sooner we come to terms with new technology, the better it'll be.

It helps not to think of the Net as a medium. Jeff Jarvis, a professor of journalism at an American university, calls the Internet a place, much like a pavement corner, where people meet and interact. Thinking of the Internet as a medium encourages the media industry to regard it through the same prism as, say, television or print. That leads to a kind of thinking that is boxed in by traditional parameters that no longer apply, thus discouraging ideas that could actually lead to an effective form of monetisation. This is the information age, let’s not forget, and people consume more media than ever before. There has to be a way to make money off that, but it might entail giving up control—whether it is to fans who appropriate a work and put their own spin on it, or to bloggers or any of the myriad content recreators one finds on the Net. But how to undo the damage that was done in the beginning when media outlets started giving content away for free? (Some would argue that it wasn’t a mistake to give content away and that it is moves like that led to the growth of the Web).  Is it possible to get people to pay for something they’ve got used to getting for free? At this point, it seems unlikely. The only way to do that would to a) build a firewall to rival China’s and b) get all outlets to agree to put up paywalls. Both of these are mammoth tasks.

The media industry needs to come to terms with the fact that they’re trying to lock the stables long after the horses have bolted. It’s futile to wish that they could charge for content by way of a paywall. The Wall Street Journal example doesn’t quite hold since it is a specialised product aimed at individuals who don’t mind handing over money for the information they’ll get from the paper. All publications do not have that luxury. Media houses thus have to move past the old idea of a paywall and explore other ways of making money, because that, really, is the only option left to them. The World Wide Web is providing a new system for content delivery. It is up to the traditional media industry to recognise and harness the potential of the Net — not only as a platform for delivery but also as a repository of information that has not yet been mined properly, and as a collaborative tool that encourages broadbased participation in the newsroom.

A version of this article appeared in the Times of India - Crest, on Saturday, June 5th here.