Media is Manufacturing (rerun)

(I am on vacation this week, and rather than interrupt my family time or break my habit of weekday postings, I’ve elected to rerun some prior posts that exemplify my “mini media” thinking.)

Every five years the U.S. Census Bureau collects data from businesses in much the same way as it counts noses every 10 years. Data from the most recent Economic Census of 2002 are now available. In the sector titled Information, government statisticians detail the number, size and sales of all variety of media establishments. Their definition of “information” firms is instructive, because it reminds us that making media is an exercise in manufacturing.

“The information sector (sector 51) comprises establishments engaged in the following processes: (a) producing and distributing information and cultural products; (b) producing the means to transmit or distribute these products as well as data or communications, and (c) processing data.”

Under this heading the Census lumps every form of enterprise from newspapers to broadcast stations to Internet publishers. I’ll look at some of these individual segments later but for now, if you accept that media is manufacturing, the question arises: What is different about making media now?

First there is the issue of scale. The size of the enterprise required to make media, and the size of the batches of “information and cultural products” have both shrunk. People can now do on desktops what it took large organizations to previously accomplish. Mass audiences have also fragmented into niches. I call this phenomenon Mini Media. Call it what you like, I think scale is the primary difference between media manufacturing today and in the past.

Second, I would add interactivity. The potential for instant feedback is a characteristic of web-based publishing enterprises, and one that offers them a competitive advantage over pre-existing mass media. Interactivity creates new ways to make media. You may be familiar with the self-defined concept of user-generated content. In the old days, this meant letters to the editor. Nowadays people are creating and sharing videos and other media. Clever firms can leverage this viewer-added-value to create what I think of as a Tom Sawyer business model. You remember how Tom suckered his neighborhood pals into whitewashing a fence by making it seem like fun. Generally speaking, manufacturing may be regarded as dull but making media has sex appeal that can be used to advantage.

Scale and interactivity, taken together, create a third novelty of the new media-making environment — customization. Technology allows us to create personalized media products. My Yahoo is an obvious example in Web publishing. But technology also makes it possible to produce small and even single copies of physical media artifacts such as books or magazines. Music lovers think nothing about creating personal play lists on portable listening devices. Small and large publishers alike must embrace customization and personalization in order to succeed.

When I think of scale, interactivity and customization as a group, they suggests a fourth characteristic that distinguishes today’s media-manufacturing environment. I call this multi-modal publishing. Fleshing out that concept will take a few words, and I’ve reached my self-imposed time and length limit today. (This is, after all, a hobby blog.) I’ll complete the thought tomorrow.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media