Old Fart Media vs. Distributed Media – a response to Howard Kurtz

As much as he uses the internet, Howard Kurtz can’t stop thinking like an old-fart media guy.

I like being able to click on newspapers from around the world, see bloggers smack each other around, Google any person or thing that pops into my brain, watch news videos (and some stupid stuff, too) on YouTube, and generally surf till I drop.

But while I hook up my laptop just about anywhere, IM my buddies and continually check my buzzing BlackBerry, one thing is missing: what I call Ed Sullivan moments.

This nostalgia for mass media is misplaced. Sure those Ed Sullivan moments were fun, but they were an anomaly. They were moments in time that only a Baby Boomer could love. Mass media is a relic of the 20th Century, the only period in human history in which it existed. For most of our history, communication was much more personal, often far closer to one-to-one than one-to-many. Now we’re in the era of many-to-many, which has more in common with campfire media, is more of a deeply felt personal media, more in keeping with our nature. Mass media wasn’t good for us. Distributed media is better.

But isn’t something lost if you can wall yourself off from views and information that challenge what you already believe? If everything is ordered a la carte? If — and this really dates me as an ink-stained wretch — you like turning the pages of a newspaper because you might bump into an unexpected story you would never have found online? If you and your family and your co-workers are plugged into parallel media universes?

Something gained, something lost. Welcome to life, Howie. I’m not going to try and guess at how other people use the internet, but speaking for myself, I consume far more digital content these days than any other. I watch less and less TV with each passing week. I have very little time for newspapers. I still read books at about the same rate, but otherwise, my media life is almost entirely digital. And I still make serendipitous discoveries. The interconnected, networked nature of distributed media makes finding unexpected gems pretty darn near inevitable. For example, I discovered OK Go because another media blogger linked to the video on YouTube.

Let me be clear: I mostly only read media and technology blogs (the narrow focus Kurtz bemoans), and a blogger who does likewise linked to something slightly outside of his speciality, and because of that, I discovered it. And now I’m a huge OK Go fan. And it all happened by accident, and despite my narrow focus.

It’s not exactly an Ed Sullivan moment, but I bet you even Howard Kurtz has seen “the treadmill video.” And we all know about Lonelygirl15. But more importantly, we all know about YouTube. That is the Ed Sullivan moment in the many-to-many era.

It’s a cacophony out there. Take the recent finding that there are 13 million blogs in America. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to read 13 million blogs. Writing one takes up enough of my life as it is.

You have to learn how to manage your media. I think that’s something digital natives do naturally. It’s old-media think to worry about consuming it all. You consume what interests you and what you happen to find by following links. You determine what is important (remember, you are Time’s person of the year), what you need to know, and how best to find it.

Sure, Paris Hilton topped Google searches in 2006, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t more people staying abreast of Iraq. Iraq news, along with the other major headlines, is easy to find and plentiful, and while it might seem that the same could be said of Paris, but in reality, serious news organizations largely ignore her. If you want Paris news, you’ve got to search it out or know where to look. I know some serious-minded people who like celeb gossip, so gnashing of teeth on this point is rather snotty. The real question is, if people need to search for Paris Hilton, are MSM organizations really doing a good job of serving the needs readers and viewers? As for younger audiences, they seem to get the Daily Show jokes about Iraq as equally well as the ones about Paris Hilton.

How do we pick out the stories, sites, blogs, videos and info-shards that are worth our precious time? We can follow the electronic links from people and places we trust, but in an odd way, that’s bringing back the old gatekeeper role, with popular portals granting admission to a selected few content creators.

First, it’s not bringing back the gatekeeper role. The gatekeeper has always been with us, it’s just that the job descriptions and qualifications have changed. It’s no longer crusty city desk editors and executive producers. It’s you and me. As to Howard’s first question: You just do it. You figure it out. You are in control. You’ll find some good stuff, and you’ll also waste some time, but at least you aren’t being forced to pay for the whole CD to get just one song, or buy the whole paper just to read the comics.

… awkward old Ed Sullivan would have a hard time making it today. Maybe he’d have to sell his best segments on iTunes.

Exactly, old Mr. Kurtz. Now you get it. Assuming Mr. Sullivan produced content worth buying and mastered promoting himself and his content on YouTube, his own blog and MySpace. I think Topo Gigio would be a big hit on YouTube, unless Mr. Sullivan tried to make it all too slick.

(hat tip to Romenesko)

UPDATE: Welcome Romenekso readers.  This blog is mostly about media (from the perspective of a guy who has worked most of his life for newspaper companies), so feel free to look around. Here’s the RSS feed.

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25 thoughts on “Old Fart Media vs. Distributed Media – a response to Howard Kurtz

  1. It is always unseemly for a blogger to thank or welcome someone for a link, as if he’s desperate for the attention. Learn to be your own man.

  2. It’s all an experiment. In the past, I’ve left links from Romenesko or others unacknowledged. Now I’ll see what happens when I do acknowledge it, especially with the link to the RSS feed. BTW: Keith, how long you been blogging?

  3. Someone needs to send Howard Kurtz a copy of A Long Tail. I’d tell him to read the blog but well…It sure is fun for me to make fun of people who make more money than me.

  4. It’s interesting to note that Ed Sullivan started as a sportswriter and then was a gossip columnist for a newspaper. He wasn’t afraid to try a new media when it came along, and he became an unlikely success.

    The Mentos-and-Diet Coke video and other viral phenoms (the Star Wars kid, the Numa Numa kid) are indeed Ed Sullivan moments, except that we act as Ed Sullivan to each other. And the moment takes place on each of our times, not at a moment predetermined by network programmers.

  5. Seems to me that the proliferation of blogs you haven’t read is no more a problem than the proliferation of books you haven’t read, which has been with us at least since Gutenberg. Or for that matter, all the possible meals you haven’t eaten. You can be well-nourished on a wide variety of diets, some of them quite eccentric.
    Serendipity works, in libraries; in newspapers; in blogs (I’m here, right?). But it favors the well-nourished mind.

  6. Nobody who cherishes the First Amendment can fail to rejoice at the emergence of “distributed media.” At the same time, it is worth noting that the relevant distinction is not between “old” and “new” media but between reported and unreported media. The reality is this: newsgathering is expensive. I’m sure it costs a news organization like the NYT or the WaPo something in the neighborhood of half a million dollars a year to have one correspondent in Iraq. Do any bloggers spend that amount of their own money on reporting? No? I didn’t think so. And exactly how is a blogger to have a worthwhile opinion about Iraq if nobody else picks up the tab for the reporting without which a blogger’s opinion is more or less worthless?

  7. Peter, there’s nothing here to suggest this is a blogger vs. MSM debate. Nobody disputes that the NYT and CNN are much better positioned to send reporters to Iraq. The question is about our response to distributed media and the changes in media culture.

  8. As I mentioned in my own blog, Kurtz implies a faulty assumption about the effects of letting users choose their news. He claims people stop relying on the editorial voice of media outlets such as newspapers and instead become self-affirming zombies. What actually happens is just the opposite. Letting the user choose establishes a trust level that then invites the media outlet to make recommendations about what the user chooses. It’s just a more interactive version of why people subscribe to newspapers in the first place.

  9. OK, let’s take Iraq. MSM reporters — no matter how much their employers spend — complain they can’t get out to cover the “whole story.” OK. (Although it seems to me plenty of journalists were killed in previous conflicts.) But: they then present what portion they can cover, as if it is the whole picture. They don’t necessarily state in so many words that “This is the whole story,” and they may even say from time to time that they are limited in what they can cover, but because that limited view comprises all their coverage, it becomes most of the news that their audience gets on Iraq and thus “the whole story.” However, there are braver (or stupider, if you like) bloggers who are going into areas the MSM dare not tread. And there are military bloggers. These groups provide that “other side” of the coverage that the MSM does not provide, because for all of its “professionalism” and superior financial resources, the MSM folks are by and large, just plain scared to get out there. The blogs’ coverage may be more positive than what the MSM produces. But because it’s not produced by paid MSM staff with official press credentials it somehow becomes less valid. Either civilians’ work is denigrated as “not professional” or the soldiers’ work is met with an attitude of “well, sure, they’re in the army, of course they think they’re winning.”

  10. So, who was it besides that loser Kurtz that loved the “Ed Sullivan moment”? Especially compared what we have today?

    I’m 54, and I watched Ed Sullivan with my folks in the early 60s. Then I discovered sex & weed. Jesus, Sullivan censored the Stones, put on a bunch of outdated bullshit, and was sneered at by everybody who was young and hip. Give me the Google, YouTube, and the rest of the tubes.

  11. Howard Kurtz, whose paper decided not to report millions of people in the US, and half a million in DC, protesting the war, has a problem with gatekeeping?

    jmo, Howard Kurtz has a problem with being irrelevant outside of the circle in which he dines.

  12. One of the reasons I got rid of cable and eventually television altogether is that I was paying for 90 channels all showing the same shit. Ed Sullivan was a VARIETY show. Like…the internets! It was great. If TV brings on a show that in one hour, gives me Maria Callas, spinning plates, Senor Wences and a live Beau Brummels number, I might tune back in.

  13. I’ve long thought one of the networks should bring back a good old fashioned variety show. And I think you’re onto something in that distributed media is showing the way, showing the interest in variety.

  14. Mass media is a relic of the 20th Century, the only period in human history in which it existed.

    Books aren’t a mass medium? They’ve been around since the 1400s. Newspapers/pamphlets/etc have been around for several centuries as well.

    If you’re referring solely to electronic media, well, telegraphy and telephony began in the 1800s, though those media are one-to-one, not “mass.”

    But I seriously doubt that television and film are going to disappear in the 21st century, making it unlikely that the mass media belong only to the 20th.

  15. Thanks Howard. Your post reminds me of why I’ve gradually lost interest in television and MSM ingeneral over the years. Blandness, craven self promotion, predictability, bad conversation. I’m an old fart like Kurtz too, and remember watching talk shows like Paar, and early Carson. Later, Dick Cavett. Guests would come on because they were interesting. They would talk, with delight and amusement. Mort Sahl, the Rat Pack, Capote, interesting non-famous people who do facinating things. Those days were gone long before the internet. How many people actually watch Conan or Leno past the comedy opening? Their guests may be great talents, but they are BORING conversationalists. At a party, I would politely excuse myself. Multiply my media use decisions by ?? millions or so. Add to that the general decline of Newspapers that began well before the internet and continues to this day. It’s no wonder Kurtz’s boxers are riding up on him lately. But He’s been sniffing glue if he seriously thinks to blame the internet for debasing traditional News and entertainment media. Their wounds are definately self-inflicted. Thanks again for your post.

  16. For good conversational interviews these days, Charlie Rose is about the best I know.

    DRST – When only about three people could read, was a book really mass media?

    Telegraphy and telephony are technologies, not media. And I can’t think of one mass media enterprise that has ever existed on the telephone, and telegraph help launch AP, but it was a long time before wire news services had mass media impact.

    Even in the early days of newspapers, those newspapers were far more parochial than mass media.

    Mass media is already dead. Where are the Beatles of today, or Elvis? We don’t even all listen to Swing or Rock and Roll now. I listen to country, you listen to pop, he listens to rap, she listens to jazz … when was the last time there was a film that ALL of your friends have seen? Star Wars III? Or at TV show that everybody you knew watched? All in the Family?

    Media is totally fragmented now, and that trend is only accelerating.

  17. We can follow the electronic links from people and places we trust, but in an odd way, that’s bringing back the old gatekeeper role, with popular portals granting admission to a selected few content creators.

    This is Kurtz’s problem–he’s setting up a strawman or actually believes the rhetoric. Of course there are gatekeepers on the internet. The NYT is one; so is Google; so is Pitchfork; so is DailyKos. There are more and more specific gatekeepers, but the idea that this is “old” or “odd” is stupid.

    The alternative to individual/group gatekeepers is network-generated gatekeeping (Digg, Google sort of, aspects of YouTube, Technorati, etc), but that’s no different from Billboard or the NYT bestseller list on some level; rather than voting with their wallets, people are voting with their eyes, but it still measures consumption.

    Lonelygirl was created by media professionals (albeit then-obscure ones); they weren’t “ordinary folks” (a construction that assumes Kurtz is not, since he’s a Journalist), which is why it was so compelling.

    Sorting things into hierarchies makes sense for basic efficiency, so people will gravitate towards that naturally. It will continue to happen with the internet; Kurtz et al just need to chill and watch it happen.

  18. NB: Which is not to say that “ordinary folks” can’t make compelling media, but professionals (or at least people with experience, which often translates into doing something for a living) clearly have something of an advantage, given their knowledge of the form and access to tools.

  19. One important distinction on LonelyGirl15 — at least I think it’s important — is that the creators were wannabe professionals. And true professionals — with their grips and best boys and lights and cameras and action, etc. and on and on — might scoff at the idea of two guys with a camcorder and a laptop in a bedroom were creating “professional” entertainment. And then the creators went entirely outside the mainstream — starting this project before YouTube really took off — to launch their creation.

    With the democratization of the tools of creation, I think we’ll see more of these productions that blur the line between old school media and so-called armature media. There are a lot of talented people out there who never before had the tools to produce nor the means to distribute what was in their heads … now they can, and some if it is going to be very, very good, much better, even, than LonelyGirl15. Some of them will dream of riches, but does that make them professional?

  20. Its always appropriate to thank somebody for adding a link its not being weak its called being polite. You thank somebody for the add just like you say hello when you answer the telephone its standard operating procedure.

  21. […] howardowens.com: Old Fart Media vs. Distributed Media – a response to Howard Kurtz “The gatekeeper has always been with us, it’s just that the job descriptions and qualifications have changed. It’s no longer crusty city desk editors and executive producers. It’s you and me.” (tags: internet newspapers journalism blogging distributed) […]

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