File:Statue of Len Ganeway reading (Brookgreen Gardens, Pawleys Island, South Carolina).jpg 

Len Ganeway by Derek Wernher/Pollinator

We all know about new media, because we increasingly use them. And we also hear frequently from gurus, some of whom know and some don’t (see the clip from Annie Hall below.) But what’s happening with traditional Western media is worth keeping an eye on too because if they survive, they will play different roles than in the past. Here are four trends to watch:

1. Losing their gatekeeper role means that they are losing money and influence. That seems intuitively obvious but because the older mainstream cannot afford to advertise the implications, we must draw them out ourselves. First, we now directly control what is news. News is what we decide to pay attention to, in the vast stream of information. It could still be traditional media, but then again maybe not. The first people with the news may be blogging, tweeting, or phoning from a riverbank, not driving down there in a convoy of camera trucks. One outcome has been falling share prices and layoffs, leading to even less competitiveness.

2. Traditional news media can’t resolve any of the underlying problems simply by providing more of their material online. Obviously, they will be forced to do that, but even moving online altogether, as Newsweek has done, can’t make them gatekeepers from the middle of the queue.

3. Charging for content probably won’t work out in the long run. It’s difficult to charge for information on the Internet for the same reasons as it is difficult to charge for seawater in the ocean. Even enforcement of copyright, as currently envisioned, will be difficult. The problem is, if one hundred million individuals are downloading without paying, the enforcement environment is much more difficult than if one hundred individuals are doing it on behalf of one hundred million others. Some current media entries can even be written in large part by robots, which further complicates the problem of intellectual copyright.

4. Due to waning public influence, traditional Western media increasingly promote government agendas. That means tacitly accepting agendas that are sympathetic to government control of (accompanied, perhaps, by bailouts of) compliant media. For example, traditional media opposed and criticized “religion,” but they do not risk criticizing Islam today. That just means they can’t be where the action is or even honestly discuss what the action is (or at best, only half-heartedly, often long after new media are disseminating the news on Twitter, Facebook, blogzines, and blogs). Their biases end up making the most basic functions of news gathering impossible.

The amount, type, and origin of information available has increased dramatically, but each human still has only twenty-four hours in a day. Attention choices were never more critical. So we must choose wisely in all media, whether it is Twitter, the town newspaper, YouTube, or smoke signals.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...