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Traditional media is going to die - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Traditional media is going to die [Sep. 11th, 2008|11:54 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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The BBC's online news coverage is a perfect example of a news organization doing pretty much everything wrong. For a start, look at their headlines. Here are three that I'm looking at right now in my RSS reader:

"Royal alarm."
"Fair play."
"Birthday state."


What the hell does any of that mean?

It's clear what's going on: the writer is someone who is used to being constrained by the space limitations of the print medium, and made no effort whatsoever to adapt their headline-writing strategy to the Internet. As an online publisher, you're competing desperately for people's attention; no living human being is going to click on those idiotic meaningless words.

We're just getting warmed up. Next up, story selection. Here's a typical kind of story that the BBC never fails to report:

"Six dead as bus overturns in Bangladesh."

This is the perfect example of a completely useless article. No offense to Bangladeshis, but what would be news is if no buses overturned for a whole week in Bangladesh. Reporting a random bus accident is of absolutely no use to anyone. Except perhaps the relatives of those dead, but there are far better ways of getting out that information than broadcasting it to the entire world. Usually the article doesn't even include the names of the dead! Nor do they even try to get a human angle, they just print the "facts." Ugh.

CNN might be biased and shallow in comparison, but that's still way better than being completely irrelevant.  Bias isn't even all that bad -- readers understand that pretty much everything you read on the Internet is someone's opinion. Instead of seeing contrasting viewpoints reported side-by-side in the same article, they just end up getting it from multiple news sources.

At any rate, let's see how the BBC handles bias. Their solution: a near-total reliance on quotes. They won't print a damn thing on their own no matter how obvious it is. In a recent article on the Tata Nano mess in India, this is roughly what they said a couple of days ago, in quintessential British fashion: "a spokesperson for the company said there was a possibility that planned October rollout would not be met."

No shit, Sherlock. The Tata company hadn't even gotten started building the factory that they were going to use to assemble their cars, because the government took back the land it gave them. Everyone in India knew a week before the article ran that there was no way in hell the Nano was going to roll out in October.

American TV news has adapted to the times by becoming a center of entertainment. That's perfectly fine as a business model, although it's sad that most people haven't realized that what they're watching doesn't really have much to do with the news. Print media, on the other hand, has had a particularly hard time of adapting to technological change.

The situation is really simple, and everyone who is native to the the Internet media business understands it quite well. The free flow of information has meant that news has shifted from an "information economy" to an "attention economy." In other words, news used to be a seller's market with readers clamoring for information; now they're inundated with it and publishers are the ones clamoring for attention -- a buyer's market.

Traditional media has a set of values and best practices that are completely unviable in the new world. Furthermore, they have become ossified and seem unable to adapt. Numbers don't lie: nothing seems to be able to stem the free fall of advertising revenues of newspapers.

If I have time, I will do a followup post analyzing how blogs are getting it right, with Techcrunch as the perfect example of a publication that stands in such dramatic contrast with BBC News. It was started just three years ago by one guy, and while still technically a blog, has grown into something far more useful, lucrative, and powerful, and now entertains ambitions of becoming a media empire of its own.

(According to the article linked in the picture, even online ad revenues for newspapers have gone down, for the first time. I don't think there's going to be any sort of turnaround.)
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