Media empires, the fall of Rome and the digital sublime

But now, anyone can instantly publish on the web. And as long as they have content people want to see and read they will reach millions. The extent of the revolution could not have been seen – the extent of the transformation.

Mark Scott, The Fall of Rome: Media after Empire, 14 October 2009

A nice thought isn’t it? Anyone can now reach an audience of millions if they have content that people want. It’s pleasant to imagine this world; a place free of the media barons, where simple souls like us can wield the once unassailable power of the moguls.

Too bad it’s just a digital myth at this point.

It is an aspect of what Vincent Mosco calls the “digital sublime”. a mythology that he says is sustained by the “collective belief that cyberspace was opening a new world by transcending what we once knew about time, space and economics” (2004: 3).

It is this mythology that leads many commentators to suggest that citizen journalism, or what I prefer to call “user-generated news-like content” is going to transcend and eventually replace the news industry of the 20th century.

But you know what, the media empire is an adaptive beast and while Rome wasn’t built in a day, it didn’t collapse overnight either.

The digital sublime  is evident in sections of Mark Scott’s  Melbourne University speech too. Scott is the Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and he is seen to be a leading light in the Australian media scene. He is often invited to give these landmark addresses. Among many speeches Scott has given in the past year or so, his La Trobe University Media Studies lecture in April 2009 was along similar lines.

Scott’s analogy with the fall of Rome may well be apt, it was the key theme of his A.N. Smith memorial journalism lecture. In this instance he was commenting on Rupert Murdoch’s plans – which Scott seems to think will fail (and I do too, a little) – to make digital natives pay for news online, even though they’ve always had it for free until now:

It strikes me as a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline. Believing that because you once controlled the world you can continue to do so, because you once set the rules, you can do so again. Acting on the assumption that you still have the power that befits the Emperor.

But this subtly underestimates the power and the guile of Murdoch and the hedge fund operators and investors who now own the majority of news media stocks and shares. The digital sublime also shares some memetic genetics with technological determinism too, which is also present, to some degree in Scott’s remarks:

I suspect that law about technological change – that the impact of most change is overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run – will prove to have been never more true than in the case of the internet revolution.

Technological change happens within the context of a political economy and all that entails: political decision-making, cultural values and change, accidents of history and individual decision-making.

However, to give Scott his due, his remarks signal that the ABC is prepared to face an attack in Australia like that mounted by Murdoch against the BBC. In this I think he’s right.

Murdoch is arguing that public subsidies to state-financed broadcasters create an uneven playing field in which private operators cannot compete fairly. This is just mealy-mouthed bollix from the mogul. He would never complain about government subsidies in his favour and according to biographers, Murdoch and News Corp are master tax evaders who cannily hide their assets in holding companies and offshore accounts in compliant island-state tax havens.

Murdoch sucks from the public tit, but doesn’t want to admit it and he hates that the same nourishing sustenance might actually go some way to sustaining credible and independent organisations like the ABC and the BBC.

Another interesting insight from Scott’s speech is the work being done at the ABC – and mirrored in many media organisations – to create media-sharing widgets that allow users to post content through social media sites.

That is why unapologetically we have embraced Twitter – uncertain if it is a revolution or a fad, particularly since the gap between the hype and the has-been has never been so narrow. Yet it is just where our future audiences and communities may choose to spend their media time. And we need to be there – with those audiences.

It is moves like this – the colonisation of the social media space by mainstream media organisations – that makes me doubt that the power of the media empires is really falling as quickly as some might think.

But what it does do is counteract any paywall strategies. If you want people to share your content with their friends – in effect become free distribution and re-distribution channels, you don’ want to put a pay barrier in their way.

This is another manifestation of the digital dialectic – two steps forward, one step back.

For another interesting take on Scott’s speech I highly recommend Margaret Simons’ blog The Contentmakers.

And it’s good night from me.

6 Responses to Media empires, the fall of Rome and the digital sublime

  1. Truth Seeker says:

    The web offers something the other media don’t: persistence. I’ve written blog posts that get 50 views on the day they go up, but thousands, or tens of thousands, of views over the months that follow. The online media still behave like the daily newspaper. Today’s content is often gone by midnight….or hard to find. The NZ Herald had a story at a link on Monday that on Tuesday was a completely different story at the same link. It’s like media history disappears…..whereas blog posts live forever.

  2. Ted says:

    If you take a look at a few of Scott’s remarkably long list of speeches (he’s only been in the job a couple of years) it becomes apparent that he is playing something of a game. For example, in this AN Smith piece he is banging on about Empires and, oh, Rupert. Earlier, he was one of a few who talked of Rupert as the saviour of news professionals. (After Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal). Essentially, you get the impression that Scott has read some books and a few articles, hired a speech writer, and is on a mission to create the fiction that he knows something.
    In reality he has never written a major article nor made a major program. He is a professional self promoter. He is an anxious ingratiator. And he will say anythng to suit those purposes.
    Just don’t expect that this bloke will actually do anything. And just watch as his demolition of “silos” slowly takes the oxygen out of anyone at the ABC with a decent thought.

  3. newswithnipples says:

    I don’t think bloggers pose a massive threat to news sites. Really successful ones may take some of their audience, but someone who is interested in a news-related blog is also going to be interested in the news.

    And let’s not forget that Mark Scott saying the ABC will never charge for content is a bit disingenuous – the ABC is taxpayer-funded so it can’t charge for news and is, of course, in a different financial position.

    I understand why News Ltd and Fairfax are looking at ways to make more money online, but I think they’re going about it the wrong way. They’ve been cutting and cutting through the people who produce the product they sell – the journalists – and now they want people to pay for a product that is of inferior quality. I work in online news and when journos leave they aren’t replaced, yet when producers/sales/tech people leave, there’s a new face at their desk.

  4. […] Media empires, the fall of Rome and the digital sublime […]

  5. […] web tends to fragment and isolate its audience to a large degree – perhaps not social networking, but in […]

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