'The End of Mass Media'? A Doubtful Proposition

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Are we witnessing ‘the end of mass media’? Some say we are, but I beg to differ. While it’s true that media are becoming increasingly decentralized and disparate—scattered across audiences, technologies and even generations—that doesn’t mean a media environment without some kind of ‘mass’ component could ever be a viable one. This seems true for at least a couple of reasons.
For one, small, non-mass media rely on mass media for content. While this content may only serve as fodder for commentary, rehashes and pontification, it provides an essential source of informational sustenance nonetheless. Without the New York Timeses and the CNNs of the world to carry the lion’s share of the news-making burden, what would the Huffington Posts, the Gawkers and the Daily Beasts of the web do? Likely, they’d be starved for something—anything—worthwhile to say. Their contribution to the larger media environment of which they’re a part is dependent on the positive externalities produced by their mass counterparts—externalities born not of decentralization or institutional independence, but of reputational heft and financial primacy.
In this sense, ‘small’ media’s reliance on mass media for content and editorial guidance could be likened to the effect of media indexing noted by Steven Livingston and W. Lance Bennett. There, media are thought to ‘index’ their coverage based on cues from authoritative political elites. As I see it, new media operate in much the same way, indexing their coverage based on cues—in the form of extant coverage—from authoritative media elites. I propose, then, that the question of mass media’s survivability has less to do with considerations of content—newsworthy information will always be newsworthy, no matter what—and more to do with questions of influence: Who wields the most agenda-setting power, the most perceived institutional legitimacy?
For your consideration: One glance at a recent “Cheat Sheet” on the Daily Beast—a list of the ‘must reads from all over’ as assembled by the popular news-and-opinion site—revealed that 22 of its 25 stories were sourced directly from major outlets. (Each Cheat Sheet entry consists of a brief summative paragraph and a bolded link directing users to “Read it at the Washington Post”—or the New York Times, or the BBC, or the Wall Street Journal, or the….) Nowhere to be seen is evidence of mass media’s impending demise; only signs of new media’s continued reliance on its antecedent form.
Without question, this reveals a dynamic of dependence to be at play. The list simply recapitulates stories from mainstream sources, providing some additional commentary and reportage, but promotes no major news agenda of its own. It provides original content, sure—but content indexed to whose reporting prerogative?
There is another reason for my skepticism, and it boils down to what we mean when we say ‘mass media.’ If when we use the term we refer strictly to the old-guard of today’s media establishment—institutions that take the form of major print dailies and nightly news broadcasts—then perhaps a major shift is indeed afoot, as the mass-media-doomsday prophets suggest there is. But if when we use the term we refer simply to those media whose reach is broad and whose influence is resounding, then ‘mass media’ are going nowhere.
Whether accessible by phone, by laptop or by cerebral implant, there will always exist media whose ability to consolidate power and talent will insure their power to survive, to attract mass audiences, to wield mass influence. As Matthew Hindman notes in his book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, “Though millions of Americans now maintain a blog, only a few dozen political bloggers get as many readers as a typical college newspaper.” This is an interesting point. To me it suggests that as blogs and other ‘new’ media continue to evolve and to grow, the names and forms associated with ‘mass media’ might indeed change—but their characteristics will live on. After all, what are mass media, really, other than outlets with vast reach and powerful agenda-setting ability? In my opinion, they are nothing more; so who’s to say an influential blog won’t someday come to epitomize the ‘mass media establishment’ just as much as CNN or the BBC do today?
In one form or another, mass media will always exist. Rather than make apocalyptic claims of their impeding demise, I propose we sit back, relax and revel in the exciting banality of their gradual evolution.
Correction: (2/1/2012: A previous version of this post referenced Matthew Hindman’s book as The Myth of Human Democracy. The correct title is The Myth of Digital Democracy
(Photo credit: “Death by Freesheet” by mjsonline, courtesy of Flickr.com/Creative Commons)