July 8th, 2010


Death of the Megaphone Media

As I've often said, I don't buy newspapers any more, and I no longer have a TV set. When the switchover to digital came a year or so back, I just didn't bother to buy a digital set. And the reason was that I no longer felt that TV stations were talking to me, but talking at me. I'd begun to feel that I was being subjected to a sustained propaganda campaign. I didn't like it that there was no real public discussion of a smoking ban which imposed a profound cultural change on British life. And I didn't like it that there was no real public discussion of a supposed threat of global warming, which I was deeply sceptical about. And I didn't like all the programmes which told people how they should cook food, and how they should dress, and what their houses should look like.

And I don't buy newspapers for the same reason. I used to read the Independent until a few years ago, when it started running global warming scare stories, and I got sick of having a heart attack every morning. So I just stopped buying it. And didn't start buying anything else in its place.

Now I just have a radio set. And radio is a rather softer medium. It's much less 'in your face'. There's the same politically correct content, but it's softer. It's easier to brush off. Even so, it's rather irksome. And so I don't listen to the radio too much either.

Instead I spend quite a lot of time online. And there I don't go reading online newspapers, or online BBC news. I spend most of my time reading blogs. The ones listed in the margin, and quite a few more. Or else I look at the blog feeds listed in other people's blogs (because I haven't figured out how to get those feeds myself). And the result is that quite a lot of the news I get is via the blogosphere. It's news that other bloggers think is news.

The blogosphere (or rather my particular neck of its woods) has become my principal source of news and opinion. And there's much more opinion than there's news. But that's the way I've always liked it. My ideal newspaper was always one in which the news content was small, and the opinion content was large. And that's exactly the balance in the blogosphere.

Another thing I like about it is that it's personal. Newspapers and TV programmes are almost always the work of teams of people in offices somewhere. But blogs are almost always the efforts of single individuals. And they are people who you gradually get to know. And who you get to trust. The blogs I like best are the ones in which the personalities of the individual bloggers shine through.

And another thing I like about the blogosphere (and the internet in general) is that it's conversational. There is two-way communication. Even multi-way communication. With newspapers and TV and radio, it's almost entirely one-way. They talk. You listen.

These days the mainstream news media are contracting. Newspaper sales are gradually falling. So are TV and radio audiences. More and more people are spending more and more time online, either blogging, or on facebook, or twitter, or whatever. And these are all conversational forums of one sort or other, with people talking to other people.

Time was, not very long ago, when the mainstream media had an almost complete monopoly on news and opinion. They could shape opinion. But it seems to me that those days are almost over. After all, someone like me, who is almost entirely insulated from the mainstream media, can no longer be influenced. I can no longer be propagandised. Because I've switched off. I'm not listening any more.

And I've begun to wonder whether the MSM will completely die out, and there'll be nothing left except the blogosphere and facebook and twitter, and no newspapers and no radio and no TV. How would news travel in that media environment?

Well, events like 911 would all be reported by individual New York bloggers, writing stuff like:

"Jesus H Christ!! I jus saw a jet aircraft fly into one of the twin towers! I live about a mile away from downtown Manhattan, and there's smoke coming out of it. I hope those folks on the top floors can get out!"

And other NY bloggers would join in, each giving their individual personal perspectives, complete with digital photos. And the news would propagate out over the web via facebook and twitter and blogs. It would reach India after about a week.

Ultimately, a news organisation is just a middleman that gathers these sorts of individual personal reports and accounts and responses, and compiles them into a news report. And very often puts its own editorial spin on what it finds. Once the individual witnesses of newsworthy events like 911 can start reporting for themselves, there ceases to be a need for newspapers and reporters and editors and commentators. Everyone becomes their own reporter and editor and commentator. Everyone becomes their own newspaper or TV station.

In this sort of internet media environment, it's no longer possible to 'shape opinion' in the way that the old megaphone media used to be able to do. It's no longer possible to propagandise people. Because the medium is not under any one person's control (like a newspaper's proprietor or editor has control of what gets printed).

This doesn't mean that this conversational media environment doesn't shape opinion. It does. We are all being shaped, a tiny bit, by everything we read.

When I first started reading blogs, I was quite often shocked by what I read. But these days it's much less like that. Why? Because what I've been reading has served to adjust my opinions. If Dick Puddlecote (who I read every day) should say that the Tate Modern should be blown up, I'd think "You've got a good point there, Dick." And if Leg Iron (who I also read every day) was to say that Glenmorangie whisky was a poison, I'd think twice before buying another bottle. (Not that either of them has said any such thing, BTW.) Because I take what they say much more seriously than I take Jeremy Paxman or Eddie Mair (TV and radio presenters, for those who don't know). They (and many other people) are the people who exert subtle influences upon me these days.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. It means that opinions are being shaped in a new way, and in a way which is not very amenable to totalitarian control. After all, if you wanted to influence me, you'd have to twist the arms of Dick Puddlecote and Leg iron and Christopher Snowdon and Charlotte Gore and about 500 other people all over the world. And that's difficult.

Bloggers have the sense that they are pointlessly and ineffectually talking to each other in a sort of closed shop. But it's not like that. They are gradually becoming the new opinion formers and shapers, and they're taking over from the old totalitarian opinion shapers with their one-way megaphone media.

At present the old megaphone world exists side by side with the new conversational world. Soon now there will be just one conversational world. And it will be one in which organisations like ASH will have no representation and no power whatsoever, because these organisations rely wholly upon the megaphone media to get their message out. And when it's gone, they'll be gone too.