SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 8 SEPTEMBER 2002
Love at first site
THERE'S an old dilemma which poses the problem of whether someone who is a vegetarian should go out with someone who isn't. It's not so much the difference in strongly held views held by two people, more the awkwardness of it.
The big stuff can be dealt with in a more mature manner, between two adults who respect differing viewpoints and rather than focus on their differences try and concentrate on what they share in common. But it's the small stuff - friends, restaurants, family - that usually causes the serious problems and makes for a bumpy ride. Or not.
From around five years ago, traditional media started a courtship with the internet. It wasn't easy at first but it soon settled into a 'going steady' romance. They had so much in common that it seemed stupid not to try. The web provided a vast ocean of empty space just waiting to be filled by publishers. Newspapers could now be read online throughout the connected world, which was a somewhat bigger marketplace for most papers.
There was no plan or previous experience to rely upon. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. So the relationship just moved along naturally. And like the vegetarian dilemma, the big stuff was okay. Both were media and both covered different readerships. One could be carried around and read on the bus and the other required a postgraduate diploma in computer engineering. And that was just to connect to the net.
They were very different from one another but had enough in common to cosy up. They were both advised passionately on the dangers of their relationship. The emerging new media was an upstart, with no roots or tradition and was only out to supplant its more historical partner. Traditional media, it was also declared, hadn't got the best interests of the net at heart and was mimicking the actions of a Black Widow spider. It would mate with new media in order to kill it.
Regardless of the warnings the relationship continued apace. Newspapers and magazines rushed to go online. They hired staff and in many cases spent millions on their online presence. A lot of money that could have been spent enhancing and expanding their offline versions. In turn the net provided the shop window and virtual shelf space for the publications. The advertising side of the net seemed to offer rich rewards for publishers who didn't need to be asked twice when the carrot of revenue was dangled in front of them.
This courtship of old and new media ended however as abruptly as it began. And it was the small stuff that did for it. There was no rush to the altar or registry office. The relationship fell apart over money. Old media was spending lots of money on something which seemed to be doing its partner more good than itself. And internet success meant nothing to the all-important bottom line of circulation figures. It was all very well and fine for a newspaper to become a big hitter online but who cared?
The net was also a comparatively lawless place and certainly lacked the mechanisms which kept its traditional partner on the straight and narrow. Libel, defamation and obscenity were part of the internet baggage which was proving very difficult to reconcile and even more difficult to put manners on. Both media also had very different notions about fairness and impartiality.
So that was the end of that and both went their separate ways. It had the usual hallmarks of a split with both avoiding any references to their immediate and embarrassing past. Traditional media slapped down hard on copyright infringements. It has moved to a subscription-based or pay-for-view format and even moved against fair use rights by, in some cases, demanding permission before a link can be made to content.
More importantly than all that, old media got its confidence back. All the fears that new media and the net would supplant the old order were banished. Why the new upstart couldn't even pay for its own meals, never mind compete.
The parents of the sundered couple however, are still in turmoil. Old media's are still wondering how their child got mixed up with such bad company and its profligate ways. Not to mention the shame that has been cast on old media's dalliance with recklessness and anarchy. How could it have gotten into bed with such an unsuitable partner? Never again dear, never again.
New media's parents, while not too upset at the unhappy ending, are still greatly bothered about what happened. What about the future? The single life is all very well and good but someday their child might want to settle down. What then? So the parents are grappling with the idea of toning down the more extreme and unpalatable attributes of their offspring.
Trouble is new media seems to like the single life. It likes being 'new' and is fighting hard to keep things like that. New media seems to have found a spring in its step since the courtship with old media was ended.
New media is revelling once again in its new found freedom. But it is a teenage sort of freedom. Staying out late, staying in bed all day. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll sort of freedom. Certainly nothing like old media, which likes nothing better than a steady job with a regular pay cheque. Old media has being doing it roughly the same way for centuries. If it ain't broke - don't fix it.
New media isn't sure if anything is broken and in any case has no idea how to fix it even if it was. And why not enjoy the freedom of youth anyway? There really is nobody watching new media. Only a small fraction of people are connected to the net. A smaller amount yet have the perseverance and patience to go online and keep coming back.
When the chips are down, it's still old media that the majority of people turn to for information. This week's anniversary of the attacks in the US will be covered by old media in ways that new media can only dream of. There will be a role for the net next week, which will be similar to the role it played immediately after the attacks. The net allows two-way communication in a way old media can only dream about.
And that's the really big stuff that tore apart their brief romance. Old media is not in the two-way business. It does what it does and people either like it or leave it. Sure there's market research and focus groups but the reader is rarely consulted directly. That would open up the possibility of publishers having to engage with their readers and that's just not what they do.
When they do try something it's usually a ham-fisted attempt to offer something extra to readers in return for loyalty. It's a hands-off relationship and it will stay like that. The opposite applies to new media, which goes out of its way to invite and court two-way communication. There is enormous depth and width to new media and as bandwidth and computers improve, it will only get better.
In the meantime, new media has become obsessed with blogrolling. It was around before but it's back bigger and better than ever. And it's one of the big differences between old and new media. With blogrolling there is never a need to insert a 'continued next week' reference, but further commentary on this subject will be... er... continued next week.