Saving MSM Titanic – or is it lifeboat time for its passengers?

Unthinkable? Not any more...

Unthinkable? Not any more...

What is to be done? The innocuous question has probably been asked by so many individuals throughout history. Lenin famously asked it in 1901, and then spent the next few years cooking up a revolution that changed history (for better or worse, depends on where you come from).

What is to be done? I popped this same, unoriginal yet useful question during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

The context was not sparking revolution, but coping with evolution: how to survive and adapt at a time when mainstream media (MSM) is under siege from technological change, loss of public confidence and economic recession.

Why do I care? Unlike my new media activist friends, who cannot wait to see the MSM ‘mediasaurus’ die, I see value and utility in this ‘species’ that has evolved for over 500 years. Yes, there is much that is not right with them – including greed, arrogance and narcissism. But MSM’s outreach still remains unmatched in many parts of developing Asia, where we simply cannot wait until the online/mobile media to evolve, scale up and establish themselves to completely serve the public interest. I will thus engage the dinosaurs as long as they remain useful…

Besides, not all members of the mediasaurus clan are ferocious and carnivorous; there are also many gentle, ‘vegetarian’ ones among them who have always been empathetic and caring. I see merit in the adaptation of these better MSM, if only so that we don’t have to put all our eggs in the online/mobile media basket…

So I spent part of my talk asking aloud how the MSM – under siege – can adapt fast and increase their survival chances. The overall suggestion was that they move out of denial or resistance, and instead try to ‘exploit the inevitable’ (a pragmatic policy if ever there was one!).

Here are some initial thoughts I offered:
• Prepare for coming calamity, by taking advantage of the likely delay in its arrival in our region and our island.
• Consider it a ‘cleansing’ process, a new beginning to do things better.
• Decide what’s really worth saving, and let go of everything else that is no longer useful or relevant.

Let’s remember, too, that the very term ‘media’ is a plural. That means:
• One size doesn’t fit all; one solution won’t help/save everyone.
• Different ‘lifeboats’ can be found for different media outlets.
• You will only find out what works by trying out a few alternatives.
• No solution is fail-proof or ‘unsinkable’.

In some ways, mainstream media has behaved with the same kind of arrogance of those who built and operated RMS Titanic, and in this instance, the iceberg has already been spotted. At this stage, should MSM be re-arranging furniture on the ship’s deck — or discussing rescue plans?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?

When the maritime tragedy happened nearly a century ago, on 14 April 1912, it dominated headlines around the world for many days. But MSM was in such nascent stages at the time, newspapers being the sole dominant mass medium. Radio communication had just been discovered, but radio broadcasting still lay a few years in the future.

To adapt and survive, MSM can also learn from how other industries faced vast challenges. For example, take the time-keeper industry:
• A century ago: people had to go to a post office, railway station or another public place to find the time. Clock Towers and public clocks announced time for all.
• Then came personal clocks (elaborate time pieces) that the wealthy people carried around in pockets or handbags.
• This was followed by wrist watches – personalised, affordable and portable.
• Now, mobile phones tell us the date, time and lot else!

Clock tower makers went out of business, and no one misses them now. Watch makers have adapted with the times, and are still competing with mobile makers. The parallels with the media industry are clear enough.

Back to the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, I find others have played on this metaphor. Michelle Tripp wrote a particularly insightful commentary in April 2009 – she has no patience for MSM and can’t wait for the troubled ship to sink.

Somebody writing as ‘Global1’ has commented about how the Titanic‘s Band played on to the very end (and went down playing). S/he asks: Could This Be Analogy To The Modern Day MSM? In this analogy, MSM is the band, and their ‘music’ is the news…

Incidentally, the centenary of the Titanic‘s sinking is coming up shortly, in 2012. It would be interesting to see how the MSM/Titanic analogy plays out in the next few years…

Mediasaurus, prepare for the Mass Extinction Event!

WCSJ London

“There is soon going to be a mass extinction event for the media (as we know it) – it’s triggered by the spreading of online media, and accelerated by the economic recession. Very few media organisations will survive…”

This sobering prognosis was offered by John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American during the
6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week.

John Rennie (photo courtesy Yale University)

John Rennie (photo courtesy Yale University)

He added: “Only some very large media organisations and a few really small ones will be able to withstand this mass extinction.”

He then posed the critical question to the several hundred journalists, editors and broadcasters from all over the world: does the rest of us deserve to survive?

He wasn’t so sure – no media organisation, however large or prestigious it may be, and how deep its pockets are, can carry on business as usual amidst this transformative event. In other words, adapt fast – or go the way of the dinosaurs…

It’s probably time for editors to redefine what constitutes science news, he said. “We should move away from the current model of reporting the ‘big paper of the week’.”

Calling such news the ‘low-hanging fruit’, he challenged his peers: “We need to be better than that. Good bloggers can now match us in most of our routine work. So how and where do professional journalists add value?”

We can always depend on Rennie to sum up complex issues in an interesting soundbite or two. My blog post from the previous WCSJ in Melbourne, where he talked (joked) about Vatican condoms and global warming, has drawn consistently high levels of visitor interest since.

Strangely symbolic? WCSJ 2009 delegates were entertained at London's Natural History Museum...around the skeleton of a Diplodocus!

Strangely symbolic? WCSJ 2009 delegates were entertained at London's Natural History Museum...around the skeleton of a Diplodocus!

He didn’t actually use the term ‘mediasaurus’, but clearly his remarks tally with what the American writer Michael Crichton had anticipated as far back as 1993, in a landmark essay titled “Mediasaurus“. In this essay, written for the then newly launched Wired magazine, he prophesied the death of the mass media — specifically the New York Times and the American commercial TV networks.

“To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace,” he wrote. Building on his credentials as the author of a best-seller on dinosaurs, Crichton called this endangered beast ‘mediasaurus’.

As later events showed, Crichton foresaw the trend ahead of most people, but didn’t get the timeline right. He was off by a few years — but only a few.

John Rennie is only the seventh editor in chief in the 164-year history of Scientific American magazine. Since his appointment in late 1994, he has been the executive force behind the modernization and reinvigoration of this great publishing institution. So it seems that he is at least trying to prepare his own publication for the coming mass extinction event…