Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media

(Reposted for Sociology Lens)

President Obama recently gave a eulogy for the legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, on which occasion, he delivered the nation this message:

We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. [...] Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

The president waxed romantically about the old media and spoke with the sort fondness that one expects at the funeral of an old friend (or cherished institution). He was hopeful about the future of conventional media. But, eulogies are a post-mortum affair. And, for all the president’s accolades, “the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites” appear to have won the day.

In fact, these days, one can hardly avoid stories about the death of print media. Last December, the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Michael Hirschorn warned that “End Times” might be drawing near for the America’s paper of record. A recent article reports that the crisis is spreading to other forms of conventional reporting such as photojournalism. Michael Bowden has even gone so far as to announce that we have entered a “post-journalistic age.”

Two explanations for the crisis in the conventional media have been circulated by none other than the the conventional media itself. Both share the same theme: blame the consumer!

The first explanation posits that Americans these days are just plain dopes. This argument has a venerable history among media critics and has been a central theme in such diverse works as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and Andrew Keen’s recent The Cult of the Amateur. In its modern incarnation, the assumption is that a less intelligent society naturally consumes less quality reporting, thus diminishing support for the industry.

The second explanation holds that people have been seduced by the allure of free content on the web and now expect all information to be free. These latter critics believe that a generation is emerging who have seldom, if ever, paid for content and simply lack the basis from which to judge the quality of various information venues. Wired magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, discusses the technological innovations which influence changing attitudes toward content in a new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, though he is not so pessimistic about the implications of “free” for the quality of content.

Regardless of their truth or falsity, such theories totally miss the overwhelming structural forces at play in the crisis of conventional media. The real threat to these institutions has little to do with taste or educational development. Rather, it is, largely, economic. The concept of “prosumption” has already been addressed several times on this blog, but as a refresher: prosumption refers human activity that combines aspects of both consumption and production. And, it is prosumption that most threatens the business model of the conventional media. Why? Because prosumption best serves the principles of capitalism in which the various form of media compete.

The increasing presence of prosumptive activities in our daily lives (most notably as a result of the important role that the Internet now in the lives of most people) has meant that people are busy doing free labor on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Put simply, prosumption is more efficient. By efficiency, I do not mean that more quality/quantity of unique content is produce with less labor. On the contrary, prosumption is less productive. Bloggers, Twitters, and other online posters produce extraordinary amounts of (often redundant) content, but the end result is that more work produces less information of value to society. The blogosphere may require a thousands times the labor and laborers it takes for one newspaper to break the same number of stories. But how, then, is the blogosphere more efficient?

The answer lies in the Marxian concept of exploitation. For Marx, exploitation had a very specific meaning: the amount of value that the capitalist extracts from a laborer’s activity. If we accept Marx’s definition then we might say: exploitation is more efficient when the capitalist is able to capitalize on a greater proportion of the laborer’s labor and returns less to the laborer in the form of wages. Thus, the most efficient mode of organization would be one where the capitalist capitalizes on the laborer’s labor and returns nothing in the form of wages. This maximized state of efficiency describes what we find occurring on the Internet today. It is more efficient to not pay a hundred people to do a job than to pay one person to do that job. It is with this most basic logic of capitalism that the private conventional media must compete. So far, they are losing.

If the public wants to retain the quality of these traditional venues, I suggest we rapidly examine alternative funding models such as NPR’s or the BBC’s, which continue to remain successful, in part, because they simply remain outside the logic of capitalism. Without quick action, I fear many of these conventional media institutions will be dismantled beyond repair.

Square-eye Obama on a “Difficult Time for Journalism”

Square-eye“Exploitation,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Andrew Kliman, ed. George Ritzer

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