You may recall that the Internet was supposed to make journalists and artists of us all, while liberating media from the dominance of giant corporations. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In our Internet-centric world, media power is as concentrated as ever, and the voices of iconoclastic artists and bare-knuckled truth-tellers are hardly audible above the digital din.
How’d it all go wrong? Astra Taylor offers a shrewd analysis. Her proposals to put things right seem perfunctory and undercooked. But Taylor’s smart and nuanced overview of the new media landscape is the best I’ve recently read and an excellent summary of the mess we’re in.
A documentary filmmaker and activist, Taylor might seem a natural ally of the “free culture” warriors who foresaw in the Internet a universal solvent that would dissolve the limitations imposed by traditional media.
Sure enough, online music swapping has devastated the recording industry, while the online bulletin board Craigslist made classified ads obsolete and snatched billions in revenues from newspaper publishers.
But Taylor, who interviews a range of supporters and critics of today’s media culture, also reminds us that the lavish profits that once flowed to news and music conglomerates enabled these companies to support a diverse media ecosystem. With their deep pockets, recording companies could support and promote good bands whose albums would never go platinum. Newspapers could maintain full-time correspondents around the world, or spend months investigating a single story.
These days, not so much.
Taylor rightly mocks the familiar belief that the Internet would eliminate the barriers that prevented grass-roots artists and journalists from reaching a wider audience. The cold truth is that it costs money to create a well-written, deeply researched online publication or a well-made film. And without support from deep-pocketed media firms or nonprofit foundations, digital independents can rarely produce high-quality products, or alert potential readers or viewers to their existence.
Today’s online media giants aren’t stepping into the breach. Companies like the Huffington Post are as reliant on advertising as their analog forbears. In fact, since the reader usually doesn’t pay anything for the product, many online news sources are far more beholden to advertisers than old-school newspapers and magazines ever were.
Taylor argues that we have ended up with a new media landscape in which power is still concentrated, but wielded with even less social responsibility. There are exceptions: Video-streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon.com have begun producing original TV series and Huffington Post last year began setting up a team of full-time foreign correspondents.
But for the most part, Internet-based media giants feed on the creative efforts of others, while investing little in new content — witness Google and Facebook, which profit on aggregating and indexing other people’s work such as news stories, videos, blog posts, the random chatter of a billion Facebook friends.
What to do? Taylor’s solution is more government-funded media, supported by higher taxes on the Googles, Amazons, and Facebooks of the world. The cash would pay for documentaries and deep journalism, the kinds of healthy fare that the free market so rarely provides.
It’s not clear, however, that media institutions governed by bureaucracy and political clout would be an improvement. A free market in information seems the safest option for a free society. But after reading Taylor’s brisk and lucid survey, there’s no denying that in online media, the market is falling short.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.