The following first appeared in an issue of Consider Magazine published October 20, 2016. The prompt supplied asked contributors their opinion on the future of media. All words are my own.
A mere three decades after creating the “Information Superhighway,” we’ve come to a fork in the road.
On one side lies the path most traveled: popular media will inevitably become more digital. 45% of the world now has Internet access, and as that number continues to grow, the same fundamental tendencies that link us all will live online as well. As a species, humans seek novelty, convenience, and stimulus, all three of which are breathtakingly more efficient to transmit through fiber-optic cabling than pressed letterhead. As Digital Features Editor of SHEI, it is my job to facilitate that transmission.
On any given week, I edit 2-4000 words of text, provide everything from language consultation to art direction, and publish original content to SHEI’s many-thousands readership, all from a laptop that cost me less than one month’s rent. What used to take a newsroom and a factory press is now the sole charge of a college junior who needs a Google Calendar alert to remember rent is due.
What a time to be alive.
The purpose of the above isn’t to flex SHEI’s production ability – instead, it’s all about efficiency. If one bored kid in a Starbucks (whose only real costs are his laptop and a latte) can do what once took the work of many, there becomes a rational economic argument for change. Add in the information commoditization offered by social media and the advent of free-to-consumer, advertising-driven news sources, and that rational economic argument only grows louder.
In 2016, we are living in the aftermath of that conflict’s opening salvo: “new media publishers” like Buzzfeed and The Daily Beast have eaten traditional publishers’ lunch to the point where the formerly-impenetrable stalwarts (The New York Times; Conde Nast) must either adapt to this digitalization (and its accompanying revenue models) or face some rather uncomfortable choices. The Times chose T Brand Studio; Conde chose magazine closures. Both were forced into layoffs.
In short: the future of media is digital. Denying this fact is like swimming up a waterfall.
However, while our shimmering digital future appears bright at first, it is naught but gilded: the same economic arguments that dictate the print-to-digital transition have directly sown the seeds of digital media’s worst offenses.
In the last year alone, we’ve seen a tide of ethical breaches directly linked to our hurried embrace of ad-driven, real-time “free” media: Facebook’s Trending Topics, emboldened native advertisers, and the scourge that is algorithmic news filtering. None of the preceding would exist without the new and unfamiliar goal of media to inform people of events that conform to how their world is shaped, not the events that shape their world.
Simply put, if you wrap that novelty/convenience/stimulus trifecta in content someone already agrees with, that person is more susceptible to your message – whether that’s “vote Trump” or “buy these shoes.” What they are not is an analytical, informed, individual human being.
The solution to this stunting of growth lies squarely on that “other path.” I believe the future of thought remains soundly with the past: safely, securely, in print. While those rational economic arguments from the above may mean it’s no longer possible to make a ruinous fortune in publishing, the printed word – in its traditional human-curated, “pay for access” form - must survive.
Are humans inherently biased? Yes. But in the age of digital media, that bias is mitigated by the tangible publishing of a static object. Printed newspapers don’t change in real time because you googled “Nike sneakers.”
In addition, the selection of worthy articles by a vision-driven professional team will provide the diversity of thought needed to nurture a complex, nuanced view of the world. You and I will learn from the same Wall Street Journal, not from personalized News Feeds that handfeed us only what we already want to see.
For these reasons, it is my firm opinion that digital media is biased against providing the intellectual discomfort human beings need to develop, leaving print media to nurture thought and stoke positive growth.
To tie it in a bow: SHEI is fortunate enough to publish both on the web and in a biannual printed magazine. While our website is “viewed” by thousands, when writers look to publish the sort of original editorial content that makes an impact on their world, they ask me first to put it in ink.
I’m more optimistic than I am offended.