New Media vs. Old Media

By | October 12, 2001

By Matthew Stanton, Metromemetics

Consider a typical American’s “local” media options today:

  • One or two local newspapers.
  • A couple dozen radio stations.
  • Several dozen cable channels.
  • Dozens to hundreds of magazines on a newsrack.
  • Thousands of books in a bookstore, or videos in a video store.

All of these media are linear – programmed and edited by somebody else. New print media come out no more than once daily. Broadcasters schedule programming to lure certain demographics throughout the day. Such media is experienced one-way: produced author-to-audience only.

Now consider that same American’s choices online:

  • Millions and millions of Web sites, all immediately accessible to a global audience.
  • Most are indexed for easy searching.
  • Many link to related content, adding depth and context.
  • Many are interactive – message boards, polls, games and contests – allowing you to participate directly with the content.
  • The Web is multimedia, freely mixing text, photos, audio and video as best appropriate for the message.
  • The Web was made for hypertext, which is by definition non-linear. Sites can update content continuously, and user traffic can flow as is wants throughout the day – news in the morning, entertainment planning in the afternoon, shopping and playing into the evening.

So, is the World Wide Web and other forms of “new media” simply better than all that’s come before? Yes and no.

The answer lies in the free market nature of today’s mass media in which the media receiver is, fundamentally, a consumer. Time is money, and how users spend their time is tied to how advertisers make their purchasing decisions. With unprecedented choices for communication, both senders and receivers now must make education decisions on how to get a message across.

Old Media: Strengths and Weaknesses

Old mass media – that is, methods used before the late-20th century personal computer revolution – were dominated by the following formats of communication:

  • Printed books.
  • Printed newspapers.
  • Printed magazines.
  • Direct mail newsletters and advertising.
  • Audio recordings (vinyl records, magnetic cassettes, compact discs).
  • Broadcast radio.
  • Broadcast television.
  • Cable television.
  • Video tape sales and rentals.
  • In-theater motion pictures.

Other “old media” communication methods also include telephone marketing, video games, public speaking, stage performances, speaking tours or “soapbox” street lectures. However, these methods really don’t fit the common usage of “mass media.”

Strengths of “old media” include:

  • Most Americans know how to use it.
  • It’s usually cheap, often free.
  • It’s been tried and tested for decades.
  • It’s accessible almost anywhere.
  • It follows consistent design standards.

Note the second item – “It’s usually cheap, often free.” The “free” refers to an idea of price for access, but people often pay with other currencies. For example, in exchange for “free” access to broadcast television programming, people were willing to pay with their time and endure frequent interruptions for commercials.

The above strengths give “old media” great longevity. In a functional sense, modern paperback novels are no different in functional design than illuminated texts monks were creating in Europe 1,000 years ago.

Weaknesses of “old media” include:

  • High overhead requiring sizeable capital investment.
  • Large groups of people producing and distributing content.
  • Print is relatively slow to respond to consumers.
  • Reliance on advertising or government support to fund operations (cost charged to consumer often does not cover production costs; for example, a typical newspaper’s revenue is 85% advertising, 15% circulation).

Like in any industry, the degree of the above weaknesses vary from business to business depending on each one’s efficiency, scale and market viability.

New Media: Strengths and Weaknesses

New media, the “digital” or “online” world, is currently dominated by the following methods:

  • Direct e-mail lists and qualified (targeted) advertising.
  • CD-ROM multimedia presentations (distributed via postal mail or in-product with other software or printed magazines).
  • Sites on the World Wide Web.
  • Non-Web Internet protocols and sites (ftp, bbs, RealMedia).
  • Personal data applications/appliances (PDAs, like PalmPilots).
  • Wireless broadcast data through cell phone services.

Video games (PlayStation, Nintendo, etc.) are often talked about in the same discussions as electronic media, but it’s hard to compare Quake to MSNBC as “mass media.” There have been attempts to bridge this gap: In the mid-1990s Nintendo tried to market non-game utilities for its GameBoy device, offering travel services such as mapping and hotel information. Much of what was previewed then later became part of the standard package found in 3Com’s early PalmPilot services.

Strengths of “new media” include:

  • Rapid development time.
  • Interactivity between user-to-suppliers and user-to-user.
  • Universal portability via the Internet.
  • Easy entry to medium.
  • Low costs of distribution.
  • Unique targeting of content; personalization on both ends of the media exchange.

Consider Matt Drudge’s one-man media frenzy during the Clinton sex scandals. While bandwidth traffic drove up his costs of distribution, no additional production factors were susceptible to such changes in scale – no extra trucks for delivery, no increases in content staffing, etc.

Weaknesses of “new media” include:

  • Lack of standards (platforms, protocols, user equipment, local infrastructure).
  • Lack of trained gatekeepers managing information.
  • Lack of an shared communications experience.
  • Devices required for access often awkward to use compared to non-digital media.
  • The digital divide, costs required to access medium.

A common legend, often challenged, claims that approximately 70% of the world’s population has still never used a telephone. While that statistic may or may not hold true, it does remind tech-savvy Americans about the vulnerable limitations inherent to electronic-based mass media.

Even in a “modern” locale, there’s the “It won’t run on my computer” problem. Big differences in reception such as Internet connection speed, monitor size, and browser features all can have subtle or pronounced impact on design, meaning and experience.

Anonymous authors and audience matched to competitive and rapid-paced interactive communication creates an “anything goes” environment. The authority of what’s being said cannot be trusted and often cannot ever be verified. Newspapers tend to carry better authority since they more time to verify information in their publication cycle. Newspaper typically are also managed by people with years of experience in journalism, while the Web is a vast public forum.

The Web’s ability to personalize to each audience member is a double-edged sword. “Did you see what was on the front page of the paper today?” does not apply when anyone can go in their own direction, only seeing what interests them and filtering out everything else. A lack of shared experience can lead to a fractured public body where no consensus is ever required.

And then there’s the “World” part of “World Wide Web.” A global medium crosses all kinds of cultural, demographic, social and ethnic boundaries. “Flame wars” betweens users can alienate users and chill discourse. Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation made a memetic observation which consistently held true as “new media” evolved: The longer an online discussion goes, the more likely it becomes someone will make a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler. “What does he mean by that? That guy’s a Nazi.” This axiom is known as Godwin’s Law.

Without gatekeepers to such communication, discourse is free to become uncivil at best, hateful noise at worst, or simply chaos.

Finally, there are problems with personal technology. Desktop units make you sit at a desk. Computer screens can cause eye strain with extended use. Screens on laptops are hard to read outdoors under sunlight. Wireless internet access is still in its infancy. By comparison, newspapers are much easier to carry around, and television is found everywhere.

For many, the biggest hurdle to the required technology simply come down to cost: $1,000 US is needed for a decent home computer set-up, plus $20 to $50 a month for internet access. Broadband access can cost $40 to $60 per month. By comparison, newspapers are inexpensive, and a family room TV can be had for $100 to get free local reception. While people with the minimum disposable income are able to join varying levels of the digital elite, others must resort to using their employer’s office computers or campus labs for personal Internet access.