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September 23, 2011 3:18 pm

When books fly: flexibility is the key to the future of media

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At the beginning of The Ascent of Media, Roger Parry’s new book tracing how we moved from clay tablets to Apple’s iPad, there is a page of quotations that anyone trying to forecast the media’s future should find sobering.

In 1764, Voltaire, the French philosopher, fretted that “the multitude of books is making us ignorant”; and in 1876, Western Union, the US communications company, concluded that “the telephone has too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication”. In the 20th century, Louis Lumière, an early film-maker, dismissed the cinema as “an invention without a future”; Thomas Edison, the US inventor, predicted “the radio craze will die out in time”, and David Ogilvy, the advertising pioneer, proclaimed that “billboards will be abolished”.

Mr Parry’s own career, which has taken in television, radio, media buying, billboards, local newspapers, magazine publishing, market research, digital start-ups and the chairmanship of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, resembles a slice through the media’s geological layers. “Old forms of media do not die out, they evolve. New forms adopt and adapt past conventions,” he writes, which probably helps explain why video failed to kill the radio star, contrary to the prediction of the 1979 hit pop song. While chisels and quill pens are no longer in such demand, each new advance tends to pile on top of the last, leaving at least some relic of what went before.

If the digital era is just another evolution, it feels like the kind where mass extinction looms large. Radio disc jockeys, hardback publishers, record labels and newspaper journalists have felt justifiably anxious about the future of media for more than a decade.

But, Mr Parry points out, “traditional media have a remarkable ability to adapt and survive.” Indeed, Wolfgang Riepl’s law – which holds that innovations in media do not replace what has gone before, but merge with it, changing the older media – has held true since it was formulated 98 years ago.

What, then, should “the media” – the diverse group of filmmakers, publishers, journalists, broadcasters and games designers – learn from the newest arrivals in the field? One important lesson stems from Mr Parry’s central thesis: all media developments are shaped by politics, economics and technology. In other words, technology should not be seen as the fearful harbinger of obsolescence. Technology, from the monastic scribe to advances in video-game technology, drives media. However, traditional media have a poor record of instigating the breakthroughs that end up determining their fate. Their futures depend on getting ever better at anticipating what technology-loving consumers will expect next, disruptive as that may be.

The second lesson is that some skills endure, from storytelling to editing. In a media-saturated world, the hits, such as a Harry Potter book and the 3D movie Avatar, can still break records. Brands remain as valuable a navigation device through the content clutter as any online aggregator, and brand power is earned through quality, distinctiveness and a reputation for expert curation.

The democratisation of the tools of content production and distribution has made every media consumer a media creator, none more so than the army of citizen journalists and bloggers that flood the internet.

But consumers will still pay for the most compelling content and the most satisfying distribution services. Advertisers are as keen to see their messages alongside niche content that serves a highly defined audience, as they are to reach the mass market during the finals of the The X Factor, the popular television talent show. It is the middling media – straight-to-video films or me-too magazines – that are suffering most.

In this landscape, the third lesson is that media owners who once broadcast their wares to unseen masses will need to be more customer conscious. Mr Parry notes that busy consumers will pay for services “that make our media time more productive and enjoyable”. They will also become less forgiving of anything frustrating or second rate.

Radio took 28 years to reach 50 per cent of US households, Mr Parry observes, but the MP3 digital music player hit the same penetration in just six years. With the pace of change accelerating, the final lesson is that media producers will have to be nimble, flexible and willing to experiment. Business models are changing at a dizzying rate. More consumers want to rent or briefly access content they might once have bought and kept; new digital middlemen are popping up even as the internet makes it easier than ever to sell direct to the consumer; online advertising is rapidly being refined, as subscriptions and micropayments make other revenue streams more viable. New devices – iPods, smartphones and tablets – change consumers’ expectations of content all the time.

Yet many problems remain. There is tension over what constitutes fair protection of intellectual property, or the level of private information we should reveal in exchange for high-value, targeted advertising that may allow content owners to avoid charging the consumer.

Mr Parry is optimistic. He believes the chaotic “Wild West” period of the internet’s development is behind us, and people are now creating real digital business models, not least because traditional media have cut their costs and are starting to experiment, rather than resist.

It takes a while for the media of the day to catch up, Mr Parry reminds us. It has taken time for the economics (payment models) and politics (copyright protection and privacy laws) to adjust to the technological innovation of the web. However, it will not be long before the next change upends the media industries once again.

For a glimpse of what the future might hold, you can download an iPad app called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore.

“Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved reading. He loved books,” it begins. It is a paean to the written word, but it started life as a short film and has been adapted into an engrossingly interactive digital narrative, which invites the reader (or should that be the viewer, the player or the user?) to do all sorts of old-media things like turning the pages, drawing, colouring and writing.

A printed picture-book version of the story is now said to be in the works, completing the multimedia arc. The app hit the top of Apple’s download charts in July. Since then, the future of media has already moved on.

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