Most of the discussion around the decline of mainstream media (MSM) news has been in the context of the upsurge in competition from the Internet and the subsequent loss of advertising revenue. Coping with the reduced income has resulted in the closure of many outlets and drastic cutbacks at those enterprises that have somehow kept going. On top of this, getting rid of seasoned professionals has resulted not in an overlap between the old and new, but in a knowledge gap in the handover process that appears more like an abyss of ignorance. Young journalists are having to reinvent the wheel in the absence of generative guidance.
Times change and the transition from the old to the new has to have a cost, but it did not have to be like this. While it is easy to blame the more difficult changes and the subsequent hardships as something wrought by the advent of social media and that was therefore somehow inevitable, there is some culpability that lies with the old guard too.
During a talk to staff at a very large MSM outlet last year, the president of the company said something along the lines of production values don’t count, no one cares about slick or professionally-produced packages, all that matters is face time. The woeful aspiration to mediocrity implied by these sentiments speaks of a leadership that has no idea about what is going to happen in the short, medium or long-term future. But then again – nor does anyone else.
What is different is that all the companies that are making headway in the new digital world do so by continuously experimenting, trying out new ideas as they present themselves and accepting that there is a certain amount of failure inherent in the process. Either that or they die. They can do this by being structurally loose enough to adapt to change and take on new ideas.
In contrast to the rigidity of most corporate thinking a defining feature of social media has been the the way people come together to achieve the things they want to achieve and then go to collaborate with others on other projects as the needs and moods suit. Twestival is probably the prime example in the Twittersphere, but countless examples exist across all social media formats.
The very problems the MSMs have are all the virtues that make the modern digital world such an exciting place to be:
- Speed: Events, meetings, socialising, brainstorming can all be arranged or take place in real-time. Breaking news, which the MSM controlled until just a few years ago is now owned by Twitter. No one else comes close, and with so many formats, each containing status updates, it is probably Twitter’s biggest selling point.
- Flexibility: If something does not work it is very, very obvious very quickly and the solution for something that does not work is to stop doing it. Commitments are in the context of what produces a successful outcome in a given scenario rather than the fulfilment of arbitrary decrees from above.
- Engagement: This is probably the most important. There are people in my life that I have meaningful conversations with – both productive and personal – that simply would not be there if it were not for social media and the other new digital processes. Where once there were a given range of options there now seem to be myriad possibilities.
- Openness: The only barriers to reaching out are the ones you put up yourself.
Plus it is all very easy.
Contrast this with the traditional way of doing things. Committees, meetings and the endless seeking of permissions take up vast amounts of time and serve no purpose but to reinforce the positions of those in more powerful positions. Speed and flexibility are anathema to empire building strategies. Engagement and openness are usually only available to the customer and client-facing individuals in an organisation, and communication tends to be loaded with agenda points if not completely scripted. The opportunity for developing authentic human relationships is limited.
Mainstream media was the first in line to weather the storm of Web 2.0 technology. (Web 3.0 is on the horizon and pilot waves are already lapping on the shore, with more changes coming more quickly.) But it was not just the accessibility of information that has led to major organisations having such a hard time.
The weakness lies in their traditionally organised top-down setups. As social media spreads, more and more companies are going to have to revisit the validity of their command and control hierarchies, and many will have to come to the conclusion that they will have to change the way they do business internally – to become as fast as they are being forced to do business externally. This of course is a great opportunity for those so placed to help them do so.
One thing is for sure: any company that thinks they can hold on to the old way of doing things while performing cosmetic changes that seem to match the times and that aspires to being anything less than excellent is assuredly doomed.