The end of the age of media*

I’m going to tell a story in three phases.  The phases compress and distort history in order to illuminate vital elements.  In that way the story is like a cut-away model, sacrificing wholeness for insight…

Media and communication are in flux. People are worried. The long journey of human communication – like the travels of a cruise ship – might not culminate in a fearsome drop into nothingness. Instead it may be more like a circumnavigation, where the waters we are entering are not as unfamiliar as they have seemed.

Phase 1 – The pre-media age : Once, we didn’t require ‘media’. Voices carried. We got by on gossip, postal services, the town crier and, perhaps, listening to sermons. The range of interpersonal communication defined the boundaries of the community.

Pre-media was about a diversity of voices. People were listening to their neighbours. People in one community knew and heard about similar things. People separated by large distances knew and heard about different things.

The people who lived in civilisations and cities experienced a diversity of ideas and the progress that comes with it.

There was no recompense for being a medium. News, stories and rumour propelled themself.

Phase 2 – The Age of Media: then we entered an age where technology facilitated media. We listened to a small range of chosen, published voices. It didn’t supplant chatting to your boss, bus driver and barista, but it affected what you discussed.

In the age of media, people who could never meet or talk heard largely similar things. Communities of opinion could span large areas. Talkback radio and the letters pages provided some limited dialogue.

We got common experiences, favourite voices (Kerry O’Brien, Jon Stewart) and important scoops. Media allowed important ideas to be transmitted quickly and broadly.  It underpinned democracy.  But we got bias and missed stories. We also sometimes got the voices that pleased the advertisers.

The economics of the Age of Media are that advertisements sit alongside articles and between news items and may blur, at times, the content of those articles.

Phase 3 – The post media age. It’s about a return to diversity of voices. People who live in the same physical community might hear and read very different things. Instead of all of us reading only The Age, I read, the fat controller reads aguanomics, and another friend reads Ezra Klein. At the same time, the media age continues: People who could never really meet can hear the same news.

But people form communities not only around blogs but also newspapers. That allows much more interaction than the letters page ever could.

The economics of age 3? There is much supply of advertising space as you can see when you cast your eyes left and right, and it lies vacant. Most ads on the internet are cheap and/or valueless. There is no recompense for editorial content or reportage but no bias either.

Implications? we’re back to a society more like the old one. Do we need to fear the demise of the fourth estate?  Nope.  The internet is like Venice. It’s a big vibrant city. Commentary, opinion and ideas will ferment and grow.

*It’s not really the end of the age of media. There’s no way a message can be carried without a medium. The title makes sense only inasmuch we agree ‘media’ is used for ‘mass media’ or ‘mainstream media.’

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

One thought on “The end of the age of media*”

  1. I used to read the newspapers but about 5 years ago I managed to stop reading even the weekend newspapers. I get all my news from online. I can’t even be bothered pulling the plastic wrap off the office newspaper (Admittedly it’s usually RM’s memo The OZ). So if they struggle to get readers when it’s free the future doesn’t look to rosy. The demographic trends aren’t likely to be reversed.

    I doubt that coveted devices like the iPad will reverse the newspaper’s fortunes either. I can see it working for other print media, but newspapers don’t have much value as works of design and their physical limitations of slotting news snippets between ads aren’t relevant on electronic devices. Newspapers are for a particular time and place which is ceasing to exist.

    I won’t be missing 90% of journalists either. A few journalists worth reading such as Peter Martin have blogs which I read instead of their newspaper contributions. How people like him will get paid without newspapers is a bit concerning. I haven’t read a thorough account of why the ad dollars aren’t able to sustain online journalism. Maybe advertising works better on people who still predominately prefer old media? Maybe it’s just the inertia of moving from a mass media that is difficult to measure it’s precise effectiveness to the online world where you can tell precisely how ineffective your ads are. I’m guessing free to air TV will be following right behind the newspapers.


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