Tuesday, September 12, 2006

MSM vs Web 2.0 @ Influence 2006 (version 2.0)

After the medieval-themed dinner at the Influence 2006 conference last night I caught up with Stuart Kennedy, editor of the Australian newspaper's IT section, and thus steward of the most influential MSM mouthpiece in the local scene. I remember him back when he was a shitkicker for CDN, so we were able to have a robust discussion about the Web 2.0 phenomenon without pussyfooting around any of the arguments.

EDIT: After having a word with Stuart and realising that I should have asked him about blogging about a private conversation, I have decided to take out statements I attributed to him, even if indirectly, and couch the arguments only in terms of my own opinions. Unlike the MySpace generation, I have a sense of shame when it comes to respecting privacy. I apologise to Stuart for having gone off half-cocked like that.

Certain members of the blogosphere display an overweening arrogance in declaring the death of mainstream media, and newspapers in particular. Without many Web 2.0 sites having got to the stage where they are rivalling the readership of newspapers, it is hard to take seriously any of the numerous pundits using their small-footprint blogs to argue that MSM was now irrelevant in the new media world. In particular, these Jeremiahs are not acknowledging strongly enough that the blogosphere as it has evolved is wholly dependent on MSM, because very few blogs conduct primary journalism, and even less understand newsgathering.

It is easy to be skeptical once you understand what the financial numbers are actually telling us. The Oz's revenue streams in their IT section have not been decimated by the Craigslists of this world, since the classified job ads that used to fund the fatness of the section have now been painlessly replaced by display advertising from vendors. Of course, that advertising budget has to have been shifted from somewhere else, and it has been a noticeable trend in local IT business magazines over past couple of years that permanent staff numbers have been slashed in favour of freelance armies.

I think TC is now committing acts of journalism on a daily basis. TC is a rather singular example since its viral adoption was engineered via a wave of sycophancy and patronage which would not be viable outside the peculiar social power relationships of the Web 2.0 industry. Can the TechCrunch model be translated to general IT... or to the mining sector, or to golf, or the bridal industry, or anything that is not native to the blogosphere? It's easy to say no. My point is that TechCrunch is not a direct threat to Stuart's newspaper business, but it is effectively this Internet boom's version of Fast Company or Industry Standard. (Hmm, we seem to have been bashing print magazines a lot.)

Where Stuart should detect some danger, in my opinion, is in the news aggregators. As I explained to him, bloggers don't do much primary journalism, but aggregators like Digg and Techmeme and Topix are aimed at doing Stuart's own job. Stuart commissions stories and sends journos out to cover them and then assembles the resultant content into pretty pages full of poignant pictures and purple prose which he expects that his audience will buy in totality. You can't buy one page of the Oz, you have to pay for the whole package. On the Web, however, aggregators become an alternative editor. Where newspapers strove in olden times to be a "journal of record", aggregators are doing a better job of that function these days than individual MSM sources are. You won't get a whole-of-industry view from just the Oz, or just the AFR, or just the Age, because they all cover different stories. Aggregators can compile front pages that give readers everything that they are interested in, no matter what the source. Instead of getting "page views" for every single story in a print newspaper, online versions of those stories get linked in isolation. No longer can newspaper editors like Stuart control the reader experience. Where the bloggers come in is bolstering the role of the aggregators by clustering their stories around what appears in the aggregator, so that the Techmeme crowd becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of what is in the journal of record for each five-minute span.

So if aggregators become the new filters for MSM content, will Stuart and his contemporaries have to adapt to what aggregators think is hard news? Stuart is an old-fashioned journo in every sense of the word, with a strongly-developed sense of hard news and how to get it. What if the aggregators favour one kind of story over the other, which conflicts with Stuart's conceptualisation of what his readers want and what types of news stories are meaningful for the industries he's covering?

And if the aggregators start attracting that display advertising away from MSM outlets, what would happen to Stuart's budget for editorial? Does the whole system break down because MSM outlets can't fund the quality reporting that the aggregators are relying on them for?

Of course, this is all speculation that is dependent on the model of the aggregator-fuelled blogosphere cyclotron extending past its Web 2.0 niche and breaking out of the early adopter crowd to become the new paradigm of audience-media interaction. Stuart's way is still winning at the moment, despite the wailings of the anti-MSM bloggers, and the blog model is the one that has to prove itself. If someone can figure out how to get the Crunch/Meme codependency to work outside Valley geek culture, then Stuart has something to worry about.

Update: Duncan Riley has some thoughts on the disconnect between Aussie MSM journos and Web 2.0.

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