If you are a media person or if you pay attention to the things media people worry about, it is hard to tell if the current era is an Apocalypse or a golden age. Maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Particularly with printed media, we can’t help but notice that many titles are perfectly capable of generating decent revenue. Newspapers are a good example. The conventional wisdom is that they are some kind of doomed albatross from yesteryear. As it turns out, many of them actually make a modest but respectable profit. The trouble comes when media organizations are owned by large, public corporations or by investors not interested in a perpetual flat line of modest profitability. It is all about maximizing growth, but legacy media has grown about as much as it can with its traditional models.
While it is tempting to go into a long discussion about debt loads and the brutal economics of corporate media, incentives and profitability, let us just return to the Apocalypse or golden age question by returning to the 1400’s. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, it was an Apocalypse for those holding a monopoly on information and access to knowledge. The impact of what is happening today is several orders of magnitude greater not just because of the sophistication of the tools, but because the products those tools create can easily and inexpensively reach an international audience without many barriers to entry. The confluence of universal broadband, powerful technology and negligible expense mean that the Information Age is roughly like Gutenberg inventing the transistor radio in 1439. It also removes the disincentives to quality inherent in a mass-market product.
These are hardly original observations, but it is worth reminding ourselves of all this from time to time. Here’s what got us thinking about it, a brief post on Slate’s ‘The Big Money’ (in, as chance would have it, their ‘Goodnight Gutenberg’ blog) called, ‘Advertisers Still Dislike Magazines.’ The opening paragraph:
Magazine publishers have been waging a war to convince advertisers that their product is a superior place for promotion. So far, they’re not having much luck. Ad pages dropped again in the first quarter of 2010. The 9.4 percent was off an already awful comp in 2009, when pages had come down by more than 25 percent.
The way we see it, the problem for magazines isn’t that they are not a valuable place to sell advertising. The problem is that, in their current form, magazines are not useful revenue machines for massive media companies obligated to perpetually maximize their share price above all else. That obligation creates the skewed economics of big legacy media outfits — writing a collection of articles enough people want to buy and then selling ad space at a reasonable price is not enough when you have to continuously feed a requirement for maximum growth and revenue as a business unit inside a massive organization. If anything, the primary culprit being blamed for the death of print (on which you are reading this post) demonstrates pretty conclusively that there is a vast, unlimited demand for written and other media content. People will pay for what they value, but if they are being charged for a bound booklet of distracting advertisements sprinkled with mediocre editorial content, one cannot reasonably expect to sell that advertising space for many tens of thousands of dollars a pop. The media industry has become a collection of Rube Goldberg machines. The threat to them from other machines will be a good thing in the end, so long as you don’t have too much invested in Rube Goldberg Industries Inc.
So why does a production company like the Production Directorate maintain a blog like this? Because one of our basic value propositions is that we can produce a significant amount of the highest-quality, most desirable video content and get it to an audience that wants to see it for less than the price of running an ad in a magazine. No one buys a magazine for the ads, and no one watches commercials on YouTube. But people will search YouTube for content they like and find useful. If you’re an airline, produce some cool pieces about your destinations for the guy on YouTube who really wants to go to Maui. Or sponsor digital programs you want your brand associated with — Pacific Life sponsors NOVA on PBS because Pacific Life likes what that says about them as a company. Get your message out, create something valuable, support good work… and do it all on a budget that would terrify the bean counters inside an old-school media machine.