Not your father’s media

If media incumbents are to survive and prosper they will need to cultivate more imagination, be bolder and take more risks

Originally published in Wordrobe (a journal about the future of language), issue .1, August 2006. Re-published in 2017.

In the early days of television, as Wired magazine in the early 90s was quick to point out, a camera would be pointed at actors reading scripts or at a theatrical-type production in a proscenium arch. That was the show. Early printed books mimicked blackletter script and the formats of their monkish cousins, the legacy of which can still be seen in the masthead of the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The format, shape and character of any medium is determined by the way in which it is manufactured, distributed and consumed

The format, shape and character of any form of an information or entertainment medium — television, newspapers — is largely determined by the way in which it is manufactured, distributed and consumed. With new technologies and business models formats can change. And according to social dynamics they will. Initially, new media will tend to mimic their predecessors (though of course they don’t decease, but are re-moulded by the new dynamics[1]).

Online newspapers and periodicals have articles and pages. The iTunes Music Store is structured around artists, 45 minute albums and five minute tracks. CBS’s forthcoming Web-based entertainment channel will showcase original TV shows and, eventually, reruns of the network’s hits[2].

This mimicry can be useful, helping people to understand, use and adapt to new models. But we shouldn’t confuse this mimicry for the real future media. Tracks are only five minutes long because manufacturing, distribution and consumption favoured 45 rpm, 7" vinyl. It is an indictment of the music industry that it is myopically fighting over how to protect this legacy model, rather than working out what the new and appropriate form of entertainment might be.

The publishing industry model is still stuck in the nineteenth century

The publishing industry has perhaps been less myopic, and accepted the ‘free to access, advertising funded’ business model. But its publishing model is still stuck in the nineteenth century, with its focus on the discrete news story, opinion piece and feature. It fails to fully engage with the facility of digital networked media in which space is unconstrained, the latest version of a document can be displayed at will, display is dynamic, and documents can be easily linked together.

A news story on a major conflict will always be important. But online, other readers’ needs can be satisfied, presenting an overview of the origins, history and dynamics of the conflict, linking to key past stories and analysis (including elsewhere online), and using information graphics (including timelines) to make material easier to understand and contextualise. Of course, many publications offer some of these elements but few with any ambition. One that does is the BBC’s On This Day feature, but it focuses on historic rather than current stories.

Opinion pieces will also continue to be important. But rather than publishing discrete pieces, albethey now enhanced with readers’ comments, publishers might encourage commentators to link to others’ ideas-based pieces and thus create the basis for a map, or even a historiography, of ideas.

Features are perhaps the most ephemeral of these writing forms. Those that focus on practical advice have always seemed quaint. After all, when you need that advice or information you are unlikely to be able to find it. In the age of the Internet, these kinds of features should transform into a kind of reference piece that is comprehensive, well-referenced and continually updated.

Another facility that is poorly exploited is readers’ views. While most publishers acknowledge the significance of Weblogging and ‘user generated content’ few are able to effectively leverage the possibilities nascent in these phenomena.

The Internet raises the challenge finding interesting commentary on [editorial] material

The greater access the Internet affords to existing publications, and the proliferation of new sources of material afforded by low cost media tools, raise the challenge of finding material that is of interest, and finding interesting commentary on that material.

The nature of Weblogs is to point people who trust a particular author to material they rate, and hopefully have commented on. In their own way Google News, Digg and Arts & Letters Daily address these challenges. To its credit, the UK Guardian’s Comment is free service offers a ‘Best of the web’, but its core comment model is rendered almost entirely unusable by allowing people to use ‘handles’ (such as ‘someone16’) rather than real names for their posts.

It is easy to imagine (though it would be a challenge to create) a model in which the stories your trusted friends and colleagues had commented on were aggregated (perhaps building on social networking tools such as Orkut and LinkedIn), and when you visited a publication or story these friends’ and colleagues’ comments were flagged up.

Perhaps the clearest example is the failure of newspapers and periodicals to facilitate the connection between print and online

A further area in which media companies largely fail is understanding the physical dimension of their users’ lives, and the importantance of ‘context of use’. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the failure of newspapers and periodicals to facilitate the connection between print and online. For instance, a newspaper reader wanting to ‘send to a friend’ a link to a story they have read in the printed paper has to take a least five steps to achieve this goal. The challenge of allowing people to move between media, to properly access or continue to access material, to reference or share it, between personal computer and paper, mobile device and entertainment centre, in-car Hi-Fi and iPod is considerable. Unfortunately, it is barely being considered.

The scenario I outlined will almost certainly involve search, as other models for navigating online media are so poor. But search itself is simply the least worst option. Search engines are basically unusable, don’t help users learn how to use them better, poorly present endless results without making clear how the results were ranked, and make it difficult to further refine a search. Many of these failures could be addressed by focusing on the users’ cognitive models and the design of the interaction, and by using information visualisation to aid comprehension and manipulation of results[3].

Part of the reason media companies are doing such a poor job is that most don’t take design seriously

Part of the reason that media companies are doing such a poor job of adapting to the possibilities of new media is that most don’t take design seriously. In both print and broadcast, design models are so well established that design is seen to be a simple job of following rules to format pages and select images, and create titles and information graphics.

This is a caricature of editorial and broadcast design. On top of this, with digital networked media we are still working out what the rules are, and we currently have only a very basic working set.

Designing to support a media organisation’s are challenges that are rarely well addressed

But design can play a more significant role still. Designers are good at understanding people (the people who were formerly readers, listeners and viewers) and interpreting research. They can infer people’s need needs, think laterally about solutions and iterate them. They can think strategically and tactically, and adapt to and exploit constraints. They can prototype and test concepts, facilitating understanding and evaluation. They can grasp and mediate between the interests of parties in a project (business, marketing, editorial, technical) and facilitate communication using design methods and tools. And designers can also contribute to the design of processes, around the development and production of products and services, and also around wider organisational challenges. (Designing to support a media organisation’s content producers and editors, and to facilitate customer service, are key challenges that are rarely well addressed.)

Above all, designers as the representatives of ‘the people’ can motivate a project by focusing on creating great products and services for them, and transcend professional and disciplinary boundaries by raising questions to the level of what is best for the user.

If the incumbents in this dynamic and rapidly changing media industry are to survive and prosper they will need to cultivate more imagination, be bolder and take more risks. Otherwise they will end up re-moulded but largely irrelevant to the needs and desires of the people formerly known as media consumers.

Post-publication notes

My colleague Ian Jindal suggests that the format of the music single may have been determined by the needs of radio playlists rather than the restrictions of the physical medium. In his book book Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organisations (Allen Lane, 2008) Clay Shirky argues that the ability of audiences to remember times was key: “A show that starts at 7:51 and goes on until 8:47 is at a considerable disadvantage to a show that starts at 8:00 and goes till 9:00” [p.96].


[1] When referring to technology we should beware of making it the active subject. Technologies have no agency, only people have agency. Technologies are created for one purpose and often adopted for another by people. It is people who determine their effect, though their impact my change society and culture in ways of which we are not immediately conscious.

[2] ‘CBS Launches Web-TV Channel With New ShowsWall Street Journal, May 5, 2006

[3] See my article ‘Information visualisation’ Nico Macdonald, Eye, No 49, Vol 13, Autumn 2003

Originally published at