Monday, August 8, 2011

TED Books: Media Makeover

Some people are dismayed by the prospect of delivering an 18 minute talk on a key idea.  "I couldn't possibly do that in less than 60 minutes!"  But with the right preparation, they are amazed that they can deliver even complex ideas powerfully in this short time capsule.   The patented 18-minute TED Talks have shown that you don't need a whole hour to explain and capture the imagination of an audience.

OK, so talks can be shorter than we thought.  Why can't books be shorter?  Is it sheer tradition?  Or the publishing business model?  The business model around physical books demands a minimum price to support publishing, marketing, distributing and selling a book.  For that price, the buyer wants a certain heft in a book.  (Have you ever been at an airport bookstore choosing some light reading for a long flight, and calculated the price per page as part of your purchase decision?  Perhaps I'm the only deranged soul that does that explicitly, but I think we all have an implicit size/value expectation in our heads.)

Now that we're solidly in the digital age, could we rethink the norm for what a book's length should be?  The folks at TED thought so when they launched TED Books, short nonfiction works that deliver "a powerful idea that can be absorbed in a single reading of an hour or so".  The books are offered in digital format, for $2.99.  In a time-pressed world, could these short books appeal to both readers who struggle to find time to read a full length book, and potential authors who struggle to find time to write a full length book?  TED Books are a great experiment on that path.

I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, my first TED Book, Media Makeover by Alisa Miller.  Alisa is one of those people you meet at TED who make attendance so invigorating.  CEO of Public Radio International, Alisa is a smart, forward-thinking strategist.  I've heard her lay out strategic alternatives for public broadcasting clearly and convincingly. Her short TED talk, about the US media's failure to cover important world events is one of my favourites.

I liked Media Makeover; it was tightly written and thought provoking.   Alisa lays out the problems with today's news media.  She is explicitly talking about the US, but treats this as a worldwide problem and brings in global examples.  (And she wrote this even before the Murdoch scandal.)

The media are not covering all the important news (further development of the theme from her TED talk).  We live in a land of plenty with respect to news, but we are offered and choose to ingest a diet of news impoverished in the vital nutrients of solid reporting and analysis and loaded up with the sugary sweets of vacuous celebrity gossip.

Behavioural psychology has shown that people have a strong confirmation bias, and crave supporting evidence for decisions they've already made.  Using powerful online tools, consumers of news can satisfy this craving by selecting categories and sources in a way that narrows our input stream, distorts our picture of the world,  and reinforces our existing points of view rather than supporting fact-based decision making on public affairs.  Furthermore, in trying to deliver to us what we want to hear, sites are personalizing the information we see, even without any intervention from us.

As advertisers divert their money from print newspapers to digital news, the overall spend goes from analog dollars to digital cents, undermining the business model for newspapers.  There is a large fixed cost associated with a strong investigative reporting team and international bureau coverage.  Good online news coverage requires that same quality of reportage, and yet digital revenue is much lower.  This deterioration in the business model has driven newspapers to bankruptcy, has led to considerable industry consolidation and to further narrowing of the sources of news.  The result of all this is the hobbling of traditional news media, and a public that is less informed than ever before.

I think there is another piece of the puzzle with regard to the newspaper business model that Alisa didn't mention.  In the heyday of print newspapers,  news coverage was cross-subsidized by other categories in the paper.  Many readers bought the paper because of its service information, such as weather forecasts, stock prices, movie listings, and classified advertising for jobs, real estate, autos and other miscellaneous items.  The classifieds were money spinners in their own right, and service information in general expanded newspaper readership and circulation thus justifying high advertising rates.  Newspapers ceded these categories to specialized online sites, shredding the newspaper business model.

Because the dilemma with the business model has eroded the quality of news coverage, the public trusts the media less than it used to and reads less news than they used to.  This is a vicious death spiral.  Less quality, less trust, less readership, less revenue, less quality. 

These problems are all apparent to thoughtful people, but Alisa does an excellent (footnote supported) job of laying out the issues with supporting facts and data.  She notes news organizations that get it, including among others The Globe and Mail; she points in particular to John Doyle's piece on "Sheen isn't Gadhafi, and Facebook isn't Journalism".

Alisa does have a proposal.   As people depend more on social media for news, this is both a threat and an opportunity.  The public should grasp the opportunity to get more aware, get active and take control.   We can become more astute in our news consumption and Alisa offers sites and tools that will help with that.  We can also become creators of news through the many environments that publish news and analysis from informed contributors - opportunities like the Huffington Post or The Mark News which assemble thoughtful pieces from experts in a wide range of fields.  Alisa details her call to action at the MediaMakeover web site.

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