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.