Content Producers of the World...Unite!

Why is the media page on the Huffington Post orange? Maybe because we're on permanent Serious Threat alert. Look at the tales of woe that trail down the left-hand lane here. Layoffs and closures and furloughs, investors pulling the plug, ad budgets being tucked back in the drawer until better times. Every day, another big-city newspaper fails to grind it out and eats pavement entertainingly at the foot of the stairs. Extra, extra; read all about it.

Well I, for one, am getting tired of the funerals. If you work in that demonic hybrid of journalism and entertainment we call the media today -- and if you're on this page, odds are you do -- you have a critical vested interest in what the mediascape looks like on the other side of this dark tunnel. It seems to me we've observed a proper mourning period for the lost, glorious past -- giddy rate base hikes! Lunches at Michael's! -- and it's high time we started looking outward, and forward.

Economic indicators are starting to turn north again. The recession may not be over, but at least we can see the bottom now. The Dow is reliably growing; unemployment is leveling off. At some point, those frozen ad budgets that decimated old media are going to begin to thaw, and not a moment too soon.

But it's hard to image we'll be going back to business as usual.

Some difficult truths are beginning from the new media economy...truths that those of us forged in the fires of old broadcast media find hard to process, let alone accept. You've heard them before, and you don't have to believe them; many smart people, like Rupert Murdoch, don't. But they only have to be mostly true to upend the media world forever, and it seems to me they are clearly mostly true.

Truth #1: Content is free. Whether or not artists/writers/pundits deserve to be paid for their work online is entirely beside the point: they won't be. Online audiences, by and large, are only interested in what is free, and click on past whatever isn't, which is why every proposed paid-content model eventually falls on its face. (People will buy offline things online, as on eBay or Amazon, but generally anything that can be expressed as a digital string has no wallet-opening appeal. iTunes is supposed to be the shining counterexample, having sold six billion songs,
but, as impressive as that sounds, it's a tiny drop in a gigantic bucket: 95% of online music downloads are illegal.

Truth #2: Competition is infinite. But won't people pay for excellent content? Don't bet on it. Millions of people are spending significant time every day creating things for your amusement, and giving it up for free. Fifteen hours of new video are being uploaded to YouTube every minute; there are more than a trillion web pages now, and growing fast. Is the vast majority of this mighty firehose of fresh content crappy and irrelevant? If you say so...but the brute force is overwhelming. If just the top 1% of 1% of 1% is worth your gaze -- the cream of the cream of the cream of the crop -- you still can't begin to experience it as fast as it's being created.

And that, Rupert, is why I'm not prepared to cough up a nickel a pageview for your stuff. Don't you know there's a recession on?

Truth #3: Traditional advertising is dead. Not this year, and not next year; there are armies of very smart people with a vested interest in the status quo. But advertising is getting less traditional by the hour, and business models that depend on that quaint '50s notion of adjacent, peripherally glimpsed, one-way corporate messaging are doomed. When network TV's top audience-reacher, American Idol, is embracing nontrivial product placement (Coke) and adver-video (Ford), it's time to start doubting the staying power of the traditional model.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying sponsors will cease supporting print and TV with traditional ads. I'm just saying I can't see them ever going back to subsidizing the effort on such a massive scale, for so little measurable return. "Corporate marketing is the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporate America," said Eric Schmidt of Google, and when the dust clears after this recession, I can't see sponsors going back to paying for the right to stand politely nearby while you engage your audience.

It just doesn't work anymore, if it ever did. You don't look at magazine ads -- you flip past them. You don't watch TV ads -- you skip ahead. You don't click on banner ads -- you ignore them, to such a universal extent that they're starting to get tough with you, growing ever more invasive and pestering as your blinders improve, to the point where now you are angry at having to search for the little X to click it away. You may even actively resent the brand bullying its way into your view, a clear violation of advertising's prime directive to do no harm.

No doubt about it: Free content being delivered from infinite sources to empowered, connected consumers completely shatters the traditional broadcast model, and the traditional sponsorship that fuels it. But though it may be a bleak time to be a New York Times Co. shareholder, if you're a content producer, it's hard to deny we're living in a golden age. Consider...

All the information the world has ever known is literally at your fingertips, thanks to the magic of Google. And you have a raft of state-of-the-art multimedia content production tools at your disposal -- you can build websites, mash up videos, manipulate images, animate cartoons, record songs and more, all from the comfort of your desktop, usually with whatever software came free with your laptop. It's an artist's wonderland.

And you can theoretically directly engage the entire planet -- no middleman distributors to pay off. You no longer have to guess whether what you're creating is good or wanted or useful -- you can interact with your readers in real time and ask them yourself. Free analytic tools let you monitor what people are doing in the aggregate. Finding out what individuals think is as easy as opening up a comments section, or following the private discussions of #yourcrap on Twitter.

The problem is, these advantages don't only accrue to you, in the nurtured journalist/writer class -- they apply to everyone. And so the issue becomes: how do you get paid? This may be the most difficult truth of all: there's no good answer. Now that free information, free creative tools, and free distribution have been sprayed out of the helicopters, now that everyone who wants to be is a content producer and citizen journalist and a one-man-band, how can anyone justify paying little old you?

Is the media irreversibly democratized, for better or for worse? I think it is...and what comes next is anybody's guess. Including yours. The architects of online have untethered us from our old media moorings, and have given us the ability to tap into the power of the infinite. Infinite information, infinite competition, infinite human connection. They've put us at the cusp of a new world...the rest is up to us.