Quit Whining & Face the Music

This week I whined about the mainstream media meltdown and my fear that the new Web potentates will merely replace the old media tsars. Yesterday I cheered what I consider to be the real revolution in the making — the ability of individuals and small teams to create serious, useful and spontaneous media in the pursuit of some public purpose. So what will it take to expand and encourage that aspect of what is being dubbed “user-generated content.”

UGC encompasses everything from commercial swaps on eBay to the quirky content on Craigslist to the youthful buzz on MySpace. This is the field of dreams that investors love because it means if we build it they will come and allow us to monetize them through advertising — and we won’t have to pay them.

But before I start my cynical whining again, let me acknowledge a more positive view that likens user-generated content to the evolution of jazz. In a charming post, Robin Good says the end of the Spanish-American War deposited brass instruments and unemployed Army musicians in New Orleans, where the cultural mélange spawned a new music disdained by the orchestras of the day. He goes on to say:

“The highly affordable tools of the publishing trade found on the Web today have allowed self-proclaimed publishers to create their own content in ways that publishers could never dream of ten years ago, while the global Web allows it to flow to audiences as effortlessly as a river heading for its delta.
In the face of this phenomenon many professional journalists and publishers frown at the quality of user-generated media much in the same way that the classically-trained “longhairs” dismissed the popular appeal of jazz.”

I understand the comparison but at the risk of being labeled a longhair I must point out that there is a difference between that which entertains us and that which informs us. To paraphrase Rhett Butler, frankly, dear, I don’t give a damn how you amuse yourself. But I do care about how, or increasingly whether, you obtain facts about the world, nation and communities in which we must live together.

This is especially true in the United State where we operate under the theory of self-governance, which suggests that it is necessary for sufficient number of us to know whether the budget is in balance, where the money is being spent and whether or not there are WMDs in foreign nations before we send troops to look for them.

To summarize the longhair critique of what we used to call the Fourth Estate it is that its information role has been subsumed by the entertainment imperative — thanks in part to relative attractiveness of the new we-don’t-have-to-pay-them-media. It has come to the point that the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain has been put up for sale even though it has a “profit margin (that) is a bit above 19 percent … a healthy rate for most businesses, but it’s not as much as some competitors,” according to NPR.

So pardon me if I don’t believe all that jazz about how things will all work out in the age of user-generated content. We will have to invent ways to support the public information functions that are being squeezed out of current media. And since I whined again today instead of pointing toward a solution, I’m afraid I must ask you to invest a little more time in this space again next week in the hopes that I’ll eventually get to the point.

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