Information, it is said, is the currency of knowledge. If this is true, the flood of data available today through the Internet can certainly be labelled as information inflation. Every cyberspace surfer and new media user – exposed daily to a data overload – should be familiar with the phenomenon.
Looking for and finding accurate and reliable information in the meanders of the Internet can be a sometimes frustrating challenge. Search engines readily lead to useless or irrelevant information and, no matter how much one is willing to take in, the plethora of words and images springing from a computer screen tablet or smart phone often proves to be overwhelming. And yet the real problem, some experts now believe, is that the engulfing mass of information contents relentlessly dumped on citizens of the global village by digital media is breeding an even more disturbing trend: the progressive loss in value of information, which is both cause and effect of the apparently hopeless crisis affecting the media industry.
Media writer Tom Foremski is convinced that information inflation is actually the central issue for today’s media and their business model. In a recent article run by the Memeburn website, he points out that, just like an unbridled growth of monetary mass and the ensuing monetary inflation beget a devaluation of any currency, the ever swelling tide of data stemming from the expansion of the Internet is causing all information to lose meaning and value–which spells doom for both old and new media enterprises, trying to catch up with a seemingly unstoppable fall in advertising prices and revenues.
As everyone knows, the days when mass media thrived on peddling information contents are long gone. For quite some time now, media companies have been living off of revenues from selling advertising space. And, in order to entice advertisers, managers have focused on a double track policy: increasing the quantity of information contents offered to the public, while presenting those contents in an increasingly palatable fashion, even to the partial detriment of quality.
This strategy did pay off throughout most of the second half of the last century, transforming information contents into consumption items. But it failed to change during the advent of the Internet, which has hijacked advertisers’ attention, stealing ad space from traditional print, radio or TV companies and causing ad prices to drop. Thus a vicious cycle has been established: the production of more info content and the creation of more info venues in reply to a decrease in ad prices, which begets further reductions of ad prices and new drives to increase the offer of information contents.
Along with the birth of digital newspapers, magazines, radios and TVs, the Internet has offered advertisers other means to spread their messages, allowing marketing professionals to promote products and services through email spams, meant to reach directly individual consumers at no cost. And lately, spams increasingly come in video format, which carries an even more significant ad value.
What has really dragged down ad prices, though, has been the rise of wholly new kinds of media, born with the Internet itself. Around the end of the last century, companies like AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!, found themselves in a position to offer plenty of ad space at very low rates, because they could simply afford to do so. Their information content production did not and does not depend on editors, journalists and staff workers, but rather it is based on algorithms and user generated feeds, the handling of which entails only a fraction of the costs typical of traditional mass media.
All along, in the effort to increase information contents, media managers have resorted to outsourcing much of the info production they need, swelling the ranks of non-staff–and therefore cheaper–editors, writers, photographers and contributors of all sorts. At the same time, they also progressively reduced the average labour costs, lowering wages and fees for both in-house employees and the occasional info content suppliers. And it may easily be argued that when the value of labour goes down, so does the value of the product of that labour. This optimization and downsizing drive benefited from new labour market trends related to the booming spread of new digital means of communications, parallel to and reinforcing the vertical rise of the Internet.
In the last decade or so, thanks to portable computers, mobile phones, digital recorders and cameras and other electronic, high performing gadgets, media organizations have been able to rely on a network of people scattered virtually around the globe, eager to act as reporters or to make some money providing info and news inputs in text, audio, picture or video formats in real time at little cost. This has allowed managers to indulge further in downsizing remedies. This trend has radically changed the way traditional media professionals work. A journalist today cannot anymore be just a writer, radio reporter or TV anchor, as he now has to be able to master writing as much as audio, video and all sorts of digital media systems.
Of course, few of the new actors in today’s media industry come in as trained professionals, and, just as predictably, the quality of whatever content they provide is often questionable. But quality has already been sliding further down the values ladder and, together with timing, accuracy, truthfulness and accountability, it has become an almost secondary issues in a good part of the media industry. After all, given the puny monetary rewards involved, why should any new media worker invest energies into checking and rechecking data and stories? Or mind about the quality of the information contents provided? On the Internet, apparently anything goes.
Massive bubble of content inflation
In Italy, for instance, daily papers pay an average of 20-30 euros for an outsourced 1,000 word story. Shorter pieces are paid even less and much too often stories are merely bad translations of features stolen from foreign media. Italy, though, is just one of many examples. As a saying goes: hand out peanuts and you get monkeys. Unfortunately for much of today’s media world, monkeys will do.
Burdened by the pressure to increase production, editors have less and less time to do any checking, when deadlines draw nearer with every tick of the clock. In the Internet-dominated media world, everything happens in real time. After only a few hours a story is considered old and new ones are constantly needed in order to attract advertisers. Thence what Foremski calls a “massive bubble of content inflation” and its related information “devaluation.”
In a world where every single piece of news matters equally, nothing really matters. Also, in a world where war casualties and pop star whims are given the same space, the latter are actually preferred because they make for catchier headlines. Regardless of how hard managers and editors have tried to keep up, the problems persist and in the last decade many once solid publications have had to fold or sell out.
The crisis is such, and the competition to entice advertisers so stiff, that even an authoritative newspaper like The Wall Street Journal has been caught allegedly inflating its circulation statistics, while running stories bent towards advertising but presented as news. However we look at it, the “massive oversupply problem” is the actual sad story behind the whole media industry, agrees Ryan McCarthy, Deputy Editor of Reuters.com and former Business Editor of the Huffington Post. And this is a problem we’ll have to live with for quite some time: the Internet is simply growing and growing and there is no telling when this expansion trend may even out.
Meanwhile the old game goes on with the usual tricks. More info contents and new layouts are devised to appeal to just about anyone and please advertisers. Thus web pages become fragmented with or overrun by ad spaces, while windows filled with gossip, sensationalistic bites and cooking recipes end up framing hard news, analysis pieces and statistics charts. These are in turn sustained by juxtaposed comment or tweet spaces and further enlivened by photo galleries, videos, animated info graphics and the like. Pictures and videos, as everyone knows, are catchier and they are employed accordingly, contributing to a mind boggling proliferation.
According to the Los Angeles based movie and video production house, Seven Pictures, every single minute 72 hours of new videos are loaded on YouTube alone. No wonder then, that even video producers have a hard time researching material for something of interest. The main issue, according to experts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, is that the material available on the Internet comes “with no separation or standards,” and because of this “the future of media is caught between spam and high quality, professional content,” especially with regard to video. And, according to a Cisco Systems research, by the end of this year 90% of web traffic will be driven by video.
The need for standards is crucial to catch the attention of advertisers and this must be the reason why Google-owned YouTube, according to the Wall Street Journal, recently launched an eight-month plan, backed by a $200 million investment. The aim is to change its advertising approach by starting nearly 100 new “premium” channels backed by professionals bent on producing contents tailored to specific advertisers.
At the end of the day though, every effort will only continue to drag down ad prices. According to McCarthy, “if you’re working in media now you shouldn’t be worried about getting your website to hit 20 or 30 million uniques (single clicks),” because “if ad rates continue to fall, even websites of that size may not be economically viable.”
The solution, some managing boffins suggest, would be to turn media concerns into e-commerce businesses, possibly based on subscriptions, where each post of information content is tied to an affiliate link or to a link for product delivery, event ticket sales, virtual services or special membership packages, and so on. But how many companies, except the bigger ones, could actually implement such complex strategies? These are costly in terms of marketing work and, while forcing editors to turn into marketing personnel, they still rely on market mechanisms undermined – again – by the usual ad revenue crisis. And last but not least, the most successful websites, the ones attracting the attention of a vast audience–which is what advertisers care about–are usually free access sites. Their fortunes would most likely change if they switched to a subscription-based service. Such is the nature of the Internet.
But is there an alternative to the advertising based business model? Is there a way to bring corporate media back to producing quality information? Would that be a financially viable solution? And why even bother, if it is true that information is losing its value? No one seems to have answers to these questions. The trouble is that few are asking or even acknowledging them. Media managers least of all.