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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 10:20 GMT
Content and discontent
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

What is the first mass medium to disappear ?

OPA logo
Are the Big Media's days numbered?

It is the telegram, which service ended in the USA in January. Western Union pulled the plug on it after only 20,000 telegrams were sent the previous year. (The Post Office in Britain withdrew its telegrams years ago, of course.)

This sobering message was given in London the other day to several hundred delegates at the Online Publishers Association Open Forum, meeting outside the USA for the first time.

The warning to media people who think they are online and therefore very up to date came from Professor Jeffrey Cole, director of the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California.

With its World Internet Project, the Centre is trying to build up a long term international portrait of how the computer and the internet will change society.

And one big change he sees coming up fast is another mass media death or serious decline : of the newspaper, now unread by teenagers who prefer the web and TV.

Making money

This forecast sent a chill around the online publishers.

Not because they are not embracing the Internet; of course they are. The perplexing thing about the Internet is (still) how to make a business plan out of it.

Online content providers are still in the development stage, taking their content from established media (newspapers, TV) and refitting for the Internet without having to pay the full price.

The biggest shift caused by the Internet is not the technology that people use - It's how people interact with one another
Esther Dyson

Some of the most successful "publishers" are aggregators such as the search engine Google. They pay not a penny for the "content" that they arrange for access.

This is greatly annoying the newspaper industry, which thought it was being so in touch with the future by getting its stuff onto the internet pretty quickly.

Revenues have not followed.

Second coming

The gap most online publishers occupy is an uncomfortable one.

That was made clear at the very start of the Forum by Tom Glocer, chief executive of the Reuters news agency.

The so-called Old Media now being replaced by the latest iteration of the Internet are not just print and broadcasting, he said. The Old Media also includes the online content providers who rushed to do it ten years ago, seemingly embracing modernity with aplomb.

But now we have Web 2.0: the second coming of the Internet.

Tom Glocer's second Internet revolution was marked last year by the $580million paid by Rupert Murdoch's News International for the online community website called MySpace, with apparently tiny revenues.

Rupert Murdoch
Old media moguls are snapping up new media firms

For Mr Glocer, this was a vivid signal of the new thing: MySpace allows its youthful contributors to build their own website with photos, journals and music for a growing number of online "friends".

Its interactivity gives News International a potent insight into the instant changes in the appetites and tastes of its users. The bloggers, the podcasters, the modifiers are in charge, aided by the rapid take up of broadband usage.

Out of control?

That is why NBC Universal paid $600m this week for the iVillage network of women's Internet sites, reinforcing the trend led by Mr Murdoch last year.

Giving the user the upper hand is unnerving for traditional media thinkers, because so much control has been wrested from them so quickly.

The media - says Tom Glocer - have become a continual fashion show, and traditional content providers have to refashion themselves for it.

But this transitional phase of the media business is hazardous because nobody knows where it will settle.

The mass media are being blown to pieces but they will reorganise themselves around some new principles.

They look to the advertisers for guidance, and see conservative people trapped in a sheeplike industry, muttering the mass production mantras of the 20th century.

One-way traffic

The gentlemanly Steve Haydon, vice chairman of the advertising group Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide, is a man who sees the future more clearly than most of his profession.

He was the creative head behind that visionary Apple computer 1984 TV commercial ad.

He pointed out that advertisers are currently spending on online advertising a tiny proportion of what (at least in the USA) their target audiences are already spending on Internet activities. They have lost the plot.

Advertising is an outward bound activity.

Internet interactivity is reversing the flow. But what's it like if you, a user, try to get through to a corporation? Companies are still stuck in the 20th century; they have not woken up to what has happened.

The Internet is giving companies the data, extraordinary flows of information unimaginable until very recently. They are still analysing it with the tools of the mass consumer age, segmenting their customers into types and groups.

I had lunch at the Forum with another participant, the perspicacious Esther Dyson, founder of the influential newsletter Release 1.0.

In the latest edition she writes : "The biggest shift caused by the Internet is not the technology that people use. It's how people interact with one another and with the institutions in their lives (also composed of people)."

And those organisations still think of us as "consumers". Wrong, wrong, wrong! So Web 1.0!

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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