Media is singular

Yes, we all get corrected by grammatical nannies when we use media as a singular when it refers to more than one medium: print, TV, radio, online….

But I think that media is becoming singular — that is, it often will be impossible to distinguish one medium from another. I’ve been mulling this for sometime as we figure out what media tracks mean in journalism school — which is really a question of how we prepare students for a job market that still separates media and their orthodoxies.

But at the same time, we are working with new forms of news narrative that blur or abandon the distinctions. I tell students that they no longer have to choose a medium for a career but must choose media every time they prepare to tell a story, deciding how best to tell it and how people want to get it. So we may use video not as part of a TV story but instead to illustrate a text story with a picture that moves and talks. Is that TV? Is it video? Is it text? Is it online? None of the above, I’d say, because it’s all of the above.

And keep in mind that the internet is not a medium but a place, says Doc Searls. Online is not a medium but a means. And news is more a process than a product. So efforts to graft old architectures and worldviews onto the new just won’t fit: a 2-D peg into a 3-D hole.

This came to mind again because I’m writing my Guardian column for next week about a tour of the reshuffled BBC News newsroom with its head, Peter Horrocks. This is what I’m writing (repeating an illustration from above):

Horrocks said that “the balance between monomedia and multimedia production will change,” but he believes there will still be specialists, different people with different skills and knowledge: TV folks know speed, radio people understand the needs of different audiences, and online people work in depth. Perhaps, but I wonder whether this will prove to be a legacy of the BBC’s products. As media mix – as, for example, video is used in new narratives not to make TV stories but to illustrate a text story with pictures that move and talk, and as we interact with stories using all media on the same devices – I wonder whether we’ll soon be able to define a clear difference between one medium and the next….

So when I watch/read/hear — and importantly, talk with — news on an iPhone, is that TV, an online newspaper, or an on-demand radio station? Is it a new medium? No, I think it’s a combination of media finally coming together, no longer bounded by the limitations of the means of production and distribution. So though you could argue that media is more plural than ever, I’d say it’s really reaching its natural state as a singular. Now the story is what matters, not the medium in which it is told. This is the triumph of substance over style.

: While I’m blathering on about this, let me quote the wonderful John Naughton of the Open University and the Observer, who wrote this for an essay for an Ofcom report:

‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium’, a word with an interesting etymology. The conventional, everyday interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something. But in science, the word has another, more interesting, connotation. To a biologist, for example, a medium is a mixture of nutrients needed for cell growth. And that’s a very interesting interpretation for our purposes.

In biology, media are used to grow tissue cultures – living organisms. The most famous example, I guess, is the mould growing in Alexander Fleming’s Petri dishes which eventually led to the discovery of penicillin.

What I want to do is apply that perspective to human society: to treat it as an organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop. Any change in the environment – in the media that support social and cultural life – will have corresponding effects on the organism. Some things will wither; others may grow; new, mutant, organisms may appear. The key point of the analogy is simple: change the medium, and you change the organism.

This way of looking at our media environment is not new. I picked it up originally from the late Neil Postman, a passionate humanist who taught at New York University for more than 40 years and was an unremitting sceptic about the impact of technology on society.

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  • ok, but the different formats for transmitting information — audio, video, “print,” and the many combinations among them — still require completely different skill sets. do you think that the journalists of the future will have to master all of them? or are we looking at new, perhaps diluted storytelling formats? i haven’t even mastered one at this point!

  • Alex,

    We teach all our students to tell stories in all media.

    So that leads to your next question: mastery. What does mastery mean? B-roll in video? I don’t think so. Crafting background paragraphs when you can link to the background instead? Perhaps. Please don’t confuse orthodoxy with mastery. I think mastery means using all these tools to tell the story as best it can be told.

    And truth be told, the tools are getting simpler and better (and cheaper) every day. So there’s no reason a so-called print journalist cannot take a picture or some video or capture some audio that can be used when appropriate when writing the story.

    So, no, I do not think they are “completely different skill sets.” That is a legacy of the old media priesthood. The skill set that really matters in journalism is getting the story right, right?

  • @alex exactly. I often wonder whether we really can expect journalists to master audio, video, photography, writing for different formats, html, javascript, css, flash, to speak foreign languages, to be experts in financial markets or international politics etc. (all this while being on the road all day and part of the night).
    Maybe in diluted forms this is possible – such as knowing how to take a picture but without knowing anything about stuff like white balance, or making podcasts with an irritating accent, and saying “anyway, it is just for the site”.
    There are some colleagues who do combine those skills. But must don’t and it is not just an age issue.
    Of course different media can be integrated in some cross-media project, but I think you will need a team realizing this, combining different skill sets.

  • I think you’re absolutely right: Media is one big melting-pot. Borders will fall apart.

  • Roland,

    Who says they need to master CSS and Javascript? Well, for awhile, we did. But that’s ridiculous; there are specialists and tools and templates to handle that.

    But shouldn’t every reporter in any medium record an interview so, when it comes time to tell the story and the emotion of a moment is best told in audio, it’s available? Doesn’t mean they need to make a radio show. But capturing and editing that moment of audio is so easy even I could learn to do it.

    These things can be learned, which means they need to be taught. (Part of my charge at CUNY is to create a continuing education/professional development program just for this.)

    A reporter who goes out with only a pencil is as badly prepared as a photographer who goes out not listening to the story. That will not and need not cut it anymore.

  • But as any microbiologist will tell you, there are lots of different media, and you need to know how to use them for what they are best at.

  • You write: “Please don’t confuse orthodoxy with mastery. I think mastery means using all these tools to tell the story as best it can be told.”

    Lots of talk of skills, platforms etc here but no-one has mentioned the key word – audience.

    Let’s not forget that the pace of change of technology (and here I include the tools of journalism) are moving faster than the audiences themselves.

    When a fifth of Americans have yet to use e-mail then let us not forget the audiences who crave the highest form of story telling in separate mono media.

    You write: “I tell students that they no longer have to choose a medium for a career but must choose media every time they prepare to tell a story, deciding how best to tell it and how people want to get it.”

    I’m afraid you are doing a disservice to your students. While the tools may be flattening the hierarchies of platforms, the audience is not so similarly flattened.

    The first thing any journalist should do when starting a story is consider the audience.

    Let’s not lose sight of that in our rush to blend TV with the river of news, with Twitter, with on demand video, audio slideshows.

    And as the late, great Neil Postman made very clear in Amusing Ourselves to Death… just because we can do something with a certain technology, it doesn’t mean it’s right to use that certain technology.

  • @Darren here here! i’m just as excited about the new tools we have, but we can’t forget that much of the potential audience may not be there yet. unfortunately, unlike robert scoble et al, journalists don’t have the luxury of rushing forward and just waiting for those who are “behind” (and i don’t mean that pejoratively — people do things at different paces) to “catch up.”

    @RolandLegrand and @JeffJarvis — i’ve worked in different media (plural implied) and i do think there are different skill sets involved in reporting at a truly high level of quality. call it orthodoxy if you want. there’s something to be gained in knowing how to produce something extraordinarily good. thanks, but i wouldn’t trade my mentoring in public radio for a program that teaches me to do a throw-away podcast AND double time it into a blog post, no siree (i could figure that out on my own)… not to mention the fact that i wouldn’t be able to sell either of those things as a freelancer.

  • Darren,

    Fine,I’m not tearing down your fees-supported broadcast towers.

    But the vast majority of your audience is on the internet. They can read, watch, listen, talk, interact. They’re not stupid, your fees-payers. They can use all those tools today — and I’ll bet a lot of them can use these tools better and more efficiently than many of the peoplein your very large bureaucracy. So don’t insult them to think that “the audience” — of the people we used to call and think of as an audience — is not ready for any appropriate use of media. By the fact that this very audience is deserting newspapers and broadcast TV and radio (here in the U.S.) for the internet, I’d say the audience is way ahead and you’d better follow fast.

    Alex,

    A few posts below, I started an avalanche of praise for the reporting in This American Life on NPR about the credit crisis. Absolutely agree that they are geniuses at radio and do it better than most anyone,including other radio people. Great is great. But NPR is also leading in doing blogs and they are trying to learn how to incorporate images now that they can. Brian Lehrer’s great show on WNYC in New York is using his platform to mobilize the public to do collaborative reporting — because he can. And that is precisely what they should be doing, now that they are no longer limited by their medium.

  • sandy

    As a member of the “audience,” I ask that content creators consider my needs at the time I am consuming the content. If I am at work, I prefer text (so as to not disturb my colleagues) and if I am at home I enjoy audio and video. If you are interested in what I want as an audience member, it would be the choice to consume news in whatever media I prefer at the time.

  • leveraging the internet is not the same as teaching reporters “to tell stories in all media.” this american life would not exist if ira glass etc had had mentors who taught the latter.

  • Matt

    I had a refreshing job interview recently for an in-house PR position:

    Them: “we know you can write a press release, and if you can’t who cares… It looks like you have a solid background and know the industry. I wish you had a few more contacts, but the rolodex is not protected here. So here’s my first question. What kind of digital camera do you have?

    me: “would you like to see my Flickr account?”

    {looks at Flickr page}

    Them: “how about digital video?”

    {looks at YouTube}

    etc.

    Writing samples were an afterthought. Media is singular.

  • @Matt right… quantity & variety over quality… every young reporter’s dream.

    not to sound shrill, but PR ? journalism.

  • Sorry, Alex, but that’s ridiculous. And Ira Glass himself is the proof. He’s making TV now. And he does stage shows with Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, who also write books. They all traffic — brilliantly — in many media.

    Matt, No offense to your profession but it pains me to see PR folks ahead of press folks. That should be a lesson to the latter.

  • let me try that again with the right code:
    PR ≠ journalism

  • Sandy,
    Exactly.

  • we can have a conversation here without resorting to “ridiculous,” can’t we? (and not the best way to keep readers/commenters coming back…) anyhow, the answer is probably somewhere in between. those folks you mention all have a strong background in _one_ medium or another…and then they branched out. to my mind, that’s the way to do it.

  • and by the way, ira glass has a team of excellent TV/video producers who work on the show. he couldn’t do it without them. none of the TAL people could do it with their radio skills. they need people versed in the visual medium to lend their expertise… and that — expertise — may be just the word that’s been missing from this debate.

  • Alex,

    We are arguing at cross purposes. I am not saying that there will not be talented, very experienced, and very well-trained specialists and experts and masters and artists using any of the many tools of media. So we don’t disagree about that.

    But I am saying that it is beneficial for people to learn more tools because they can learn them and use them. I assume you’re not against that.

    So let’s please call that a middleground.

  • Alex,

    I just looked at your impressive resume and I do think you prove the point yourself: You worked for The New Yorker doing podcasts. Right there, you’re cross media. Now you weren’t (yet) reporting or writing Malcolm Gladwell’s stories but I’ll be you and the magazine wanted him to get digital recordings of his interviews, thoughts, and discussions for audio — something that was unheard of even when I worked with The New Yorker as it started going online. Your presence there bringing audio into the print domain was a sign of progress.

  • only, you won’t be the one training those specialists/masters/artists :-)
    i kid, i kid.
    yes, agree people should learn other tools.
    middle ground achieved.

  • and i left the new yorker b/c i couldn’t get the training there that i could only get at an “old media establishment”. i will probably return to the web at some point (i do love it)…but the artistry/expertise/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is not in the “online journalism world”…at least not yet. reality is, to get that kind of mentoring and training today, you need to go back. sort of like finding the ancient master in one of those old kung fu movies, ya know?

  • I told people who worked for me as i tell students to suck knowledge out of jobs and then use it — and share it. So suck knowledge out of NPR stations, take it back to the New Yorker, and share it with those print folks to create something new together that couldn’t be created in either medium alone. That’s the point! There are new opportunities.

    (If you’d gone to CUNY, you’d have learned all these tools….:-))

  • To speak in traditional terms, I predict a mix of general assignment reporting plus staffers who are talented in one thing or another, but find themselves working with whatever tools they need. The general assignment reporter can post to the Web, do some video, some audio, some photos as the need arises. The columnist might shoot YouTube video or find that an RSS feed is great for readership and sources. The investigative reporter might become very good at databases, and the police reporter might do Google maps or raw video. Someone with an eye for visuals might do a video project but learn Flash to do it. Someone with an ear for sound might learn to edit video.

  • I recall at a job interview for a rather big broadcaster being asked again and again the question: “Well, what is it you do?”

    Surely I wasn’t that rubbish.

    But then that was 1996 and the idea of vjing, websites cum radio was NOT to be entertained.

    Today, it’s all the same ones and zeros really – in a manner of speaking. ;-)

  • Warren Harrison

    @all – a fascinating exchange from all, but much of it all seems caught up with new ideas, based on outdated and traditional thinking – trying to embrace change at aram length?

    From my own experiences in training journalists to work in video – 99% of them get it, want to embrace it, but then get back to newsrooms where editors don’t understand it and in some cases simply don’t want change – forget the camera sonny.

    I remember working in TV documentary on 16mm film when video hit – people ignored the looming change, clung to traditional notions of craft, ‘broadcast standards’ and forms that were long established. It was painful for many, still is. I get the impression form speaking to various senior figures in UK TV that they like to project that embrace of the singular, whilst being wedded to the core of the traditional – it’s who they are, why shouldn’t they – i’m only 38 and I still have to fight the tradition that I spent my formative years learning in. In looking to the future, we have to consider a world where those who embrace this singularity now have become the grandees and those who feign an embrace of it are gone. The terms of debate will have changed from those in these comments. Brian C’s predictions have actually happended, they are already gathering dust in some places.

    I’m struck by what my 8yr old does at school:

    Animates in 3d on a Mac, uses a PC for research on the web, gives powerpoints to his class, can easily use a digital camera or SLR and operate a video camera. He may go to uni in 10 years or so – will it be able to cope with the ways he may wish to express himself? Can the masters and the audience cope at present with what those who embrace singularity know is possible and are not allowed to do? We need an organisation brave enough to try everything, even become one and the same with it’s audience – let’s really see what happens in the mix – yes it means abandoning much more than tradition, it means changing identity.

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  • Jeff, on this subject, what word should we be using for the consumers of monomedia? I am increasingly unhappy with “users” – probably because it is ugly and pedestrian. Audience is no good because it denies interactivity; readers, viewers, listeners etc. all imply a single medium.
    Congregation?
    I’m minded to offer a bottle of champagne to whoever can solve this conundrum in the most elegant and useful way.

  • Public?

  • Hmm. Isn’t that absolutely everybody? Not convinced.

  • Constituents?

  • Interactors?

  • Conversants?

  • Peeps?

  • To delve into the PR world (eee-gads, not in front of the journalists!), maybe the term Simon is looking for (to describe the interactive people on the Web) are Active Publics. Slightly more specific than Jeff’s suggestion and it implies that the people visiting a particular site and interacting within it are doing so because they are motivated and want to be there.

    People who go to a site because they have to or because they’re just poking around are the Latent Publics (similar to people who sit back and read blogs and comments but don’t join in the conversation…)

    Maybe we’re getting closer here?

  • I think Katy may be onto something here in terms of her analysis, but the words themselves sound as if they come from a sociological treatise, don’t they? We need something with verve and style, if it’s to gain currency.

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