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Is Media Better Now?
It depends who you ask.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #43.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
Brian Morrissey and I are making a podcast. Listen here.
I was having dinner with an old friend this week. We chatted about the things that always seem to come up at dinner these days like how fucked up the world is and such.
A natural optimist, I find myself playing defense in these discussions. My friend, however, is French, a sort of pragmatic / romantic, and tends to dislike many things, especially newfangled ones. She suggested our obsession with economic growth is unsustainable, that we need a new way to think about well-being and progress.
She sees media as part of the problem and maintained it was much better before — when media was the local paper, a handful of TV and radio stations, seeing a film at the cinema. Before everything was content and everyone made content. Before content accumulated in feeds, necessitating algorithms to pick which things might entertain us. Before content blended with communication and made its way to more and more of our surfaces that surround us. Simpler times when media sustained a collective cultural consciousness, or at least more of one than we have now.
Her comments challenged a notion I had earlier in the day.
I had been thinking the opposite. Not about algorithms or the many challenges we face, but about the modern richness of choice, about unexpected genius of basement creators, the pleasure of content perfectly suited to my narrow interests. I had been thinking about how media was so awesome now.
A podcast brought it on. I was driving and listening to Ezra Klein interview the inimitable Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. It was the perfect kind of intimate radio in the car that made you feel like a fly on the wall. As an aside, Atwood is a treasure. Her gift is prescient wisdom manifest in narrative. I thought to myself that the word “wise” is, at least historically, too often associated with old men. Atwood is so deserving of the descriptor. I wanted to quote a bunch of it. It’s a couple of months old now but worth a listen (thanks for the recco, Chris).
Atwood makes many good points ranging from the human talent for insatiability, the trouble with utopias, the importance of “fun” to any social or political movement. One good exchange of many:
EZRA KLEIN: What do you think the disadvantage is of being a species that thinks in stories, where information is more persuasive in a good story?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh, yeah, you can make up really destructive things and use them in an instigated and malicious way for your own ends. And that’s the other thing that we really know about stories, and going back as far as we can with the written record, that, among other things, those are the kinds of stories we find. So why were people so horrified by Odysseus? He made up these lies. He made up stories. He made up ruses. He made up deceptions. He’s tricky.
So we are a species that deceives. Other species deceive, too. But we do it more elaborately, and we do it with stories. Other animals go in for camouflage and deception, but we were able to go in for camouflage and deception using words. And we can, for instance, make up false stories about our enemies to get other people to dislike them and turn against them. And if you go into the history of propaganda in wartime, you will find a lot of clever inventions about stuff that wasn’t true, done for the purposes of deceiving. So we are a species that deceives. Other species deceive, too. But we do it more elaborately, and we do it with stories.
Anyway…. in the back of my mind I was thinking about this new podcast I am doing with Brian. There’s a little segment at the end called “Good Product.” Picking a good product is one of my meager responsibilities. I have a thing about the delightful things people make — I dedicated a newsletter to them a while back. We all have products we are deeply fond of. Great ones are born of deep insight, craft, passion and sweat. For me, identifying the best is a playful pastime. Last week I chose the McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin. The week before, Yerba Mate (Passionfruit) in a bottle. Both top notch.
I needed a candidate this week. Ezra’s podcast was something I was considering.
Truth is, I love so much media right now. What used to be called TV is so much better, in conventional and unconventional ways. "House of Dragons" is the latest ad-free weekly treat. "How to with John Wilson" is an unlikely joy and would never have been made before. Bill Hader is genius as writer, producer and star of “Barry”. YouTube, broadly, is a wonder. Channel 5 with Andrew Callahan could only exist because of it. So many podcasts and newsletters are smart and wonderfully niche thanks to an unlimited bandwidth, constraint-free digital world.
In short... I disagree with my French friend. It is not my intention to litigate whether social media is bad, the unintended consequences of filter bubbles, pretend we do not have lots of work to do to curb the divisive impulses of modern media. I do realize it’s hard to compare now and then. But media is deeply satisfying now. Especially for the curious.
I thought I should ask around, in a way that was broad and totally unqualified. So I texted a bunch of people... without any prompting or set up: "Do you think media is better now than when you were young?" A conversation starter. The answers rolled in…
Some were pessimistic:
I think mistrust is legit. People think media is full of bullshit. I think the youngs get their news, inspo and intel from social. I think monetization is broken and there’s no silver bullet. It’s a matter of time before Google becomes the e-commerce engine and takes it away from all of us. Subscription success largely exists bc of polarization. And advertisers default to scale which media cos can't win at against platforms. Even newer distribution model based cos like Substack or Snapchat are falling apart. (Remember the conference call one that was popular for a hot minute in the pandemic?) We used to have one single source of distribution and 2 monetization models. Too much is demanded of media orgs now to reach people and make money, and not enough money comes in to support the work. Esp at a high level.
No... media was the best when MTV was at its peak. It’s been all downhill since then with some exceptions... really just The Sopranos.
To others, it was no contest:
I love the web. TV, not really.
Yes, better now. What we had got the job done, but today there’s just so much more abundance, choice, diversity of viewpoints, etc. A lot of it isn’t as “good” using the criteria that might have made “good” magazines “good” but that’s not the point… Would have taken YouTube over NBC a million times in the 90s (Sorry, Seinfeld).
Some offered a qualified yes:
I'm always nostalgic. But just the “access" to breadth and depth makes me say now. I want to say no but it is. Accessibility alone.
I think there’s more shit, which weakens quality, but accessibility is massive. Like YouTube. However, I think it’s less a driver of culture (premium media) than it’s ever been.
Well, “better” is subjective but some objective points:
1) easier to access all information; 2) cheaper than ever for consumers; 3) across more devices, on every device; 4) cheaper to create; 5) less barrier to entry; 6) more options; 7) less hardware.
Yes but I don't enjoy it more. Democratization is better. More creativity. But it's overwhelming. I feel pressured to spread things. I used to read more books.
News better then; entertainment better now.
This one was suffering from addiction:
It’s different. Quality is lower but the addictive qualities are high.
I dunno how to compare it really because the whole medium is the message overused cliche is really clear right now. It’s transitioned from being about the content to being about the experience of receiving the content.
It plays a different role in our lives.
Instagram scrolling, Apple news wormholes, I even chance the links on my Google homepage.
It’s like smoking. I do it without thinking.
But I do it a lot.
Reading like it’s from the window of a moving car.
Others fought the nostalgia of the old world but appreciated what was gained:
The short answer is not better or worse but different.
What we gained in voices and choices, we lost on intention. Brands had more editorial purpose, driven by editorial integrity. That was an important value in media, and has been lost through the democratization.
Algorithms guarantee delivering value on interest, but I sometimes miss instinct delivering on interest because the result can be different.
Also, choice is a funny thing, more choice makes it harder to choose which makes it harder to value. I miss the days where I value my media. It fulfilled me differently.
Also, as a designer at heart, I do miss the art of design. Grid systems, brand systems. Typography. This exists still, but you don’t see an “Alexey Brodovitch” anymore.
Innovative formats become trends instead of brand identities.
With all that said, the pace of media is incredible. The lack of preciousness at times can be refreshing to content. The voices as brands can be unique and discovered. Knowing that distribution can be achieved by all gives incredible new players in content creation that was absent in the days where a magazine is the end all be all.
Modern media clearly works better for the motivated and curious :
I think the world was not so much simpler but the path was more single directional. Now there’s endless options but also so much more noise so the onus falls on users to be their own filter. Problem is…everyday individuals aren’t able to do that and so they fall into rabbit holes and echo chambers. It’s kind of like the difference between logging into AppleTV vs Netflix. The former feels a bit limited but ultimately acceptable. The latter feels endless but ultimately fatiguing.
I think a lot of people do too but niche/enthusiast audiences seek niche/enthusiast information. They always have been a different cohort. That’s why their niche/enthusiasts.
We’ve got it all now, anyone can find what resonates for them, and can digest it in their preferred mode. For me, it’s about the niche stuff.
Look at OVERTIME, best example for something that’s not too, too narrow. Basketball.
Back in the day - what options did we have? SLAM magazine to my knowledge was the only pure play basketball media property. It has a $ cost and only available monthly - no video and some other issues.
Overtime, and a few other things have finished the thought of a Slam.
Mass channels created mass culture and there’s something great about that:
It is better creatively, it doesn’t feel as potent or valuable. It was more of a shared experience (we had few things to watch), it was harder to get, and because of those two things it lasted longer. Think it was easier to create community around content.
Stuff is good now. Real good. But it moves so fast, it’s so easy to consume and move on so it feels less valuable. There’s so much competition. Everything competes with everything. Currency is finding something new, not being the kid that can recite Goonies quotes. But a lot of the shit I watched as a kid and loved was objectively pretty terrible. It just felt special because of the circumstances.
I don’t think my son will have a Star Wars but he very well might end up consuming much better content. I don’t know what’s better.
Or maybe it just doesn’t matter:
Better Call Saul + Succession
Kendrick + Paak
AI Art + A24
44/HOPE + 45/MAGA
M-A-S-H + Hill Street Blues
Van Halen + Michael Jackson
Warhol + Haring
Ronald Reagan + News at 11
Thanks folks. That’s a good sample. But Substack has poll now. Let’s try it. Over to you…
It was a long drive. I had time to listen to another podcast. This one loved by some, loathed by others. That happens when billionaires talk shop… and politics. The “All In” Podcast, with host Jason Calacanis and a cast of smart, rich “besties” is good, if sometimes cringe-worthy, media. Last week they talked content and influencers and MrBeast because everyone wanted to talk about MrBeast. Here's David Friedberg on the new world of content… a little fast and loose with the facts, but we take the point:
Kylie Jenner launches, the makeup brand takes off becomes this billion dollar brand, Kim Kardashian launches a clothing brand becomes a $3 billion brand. These are not just brands, they are businesses and here's what I think is the most prescient M & A transaction of 2022 you guys can tell me, I'm crazy. I think the most important m and a deal of 2022 was when Penn Gaming bought Barstool sports because it, it shows that every consumer packaged good or every consumer services business ultimately needs to be a content business. And if you don't naturally have content creation in your blood, you have to go and buy a content business or you're gonna die. And that's why being all traditional brands that aren't oriented and built around content creation as their primary differentiating foundation will not survive and will not be able to compete. Instead what we're going to see is influencers and individuals that create content build and distribute consumer goods and consumer services in a more efficient way because guess what? They've got distribution built in distribution is the number one problem with all consumer services and all consumer goods.
Ok, Ok. If you read this email you know I agree and we have touched on the themes endlessly. BTW, his missive is surely the year's best shoutout to the Chernin team - some of the sharpest nextgen investors around (Barstool, Epic Gardening, Surfline, CrunchyRoll, Meat Eater, Hodinkee, Food52), who this week announced a new fund with MrBeast’s management company, Night Capital.
But, is media better now? Does the bad outweigh the good? Is anyone trying to make it better?
The Vox team seems to be and I appreciate them for it. I have commented in the past on how tough and lonely it is to be a web page in a social app driven world. Vox’s newly redesigned the Verge is an attempt to pull back content discovery and community to the lowly web site.
Think of the modern digital media world as divided into verticals and horizontals. Verticals are websites and individual content creators. Horizontals are the starting points that funnel attention to the verticals either through search or social platforms like Instagram or TikTok or YouTube. Horizonals stole the show from verticals. The Verge wants to bring some of the horizontal back to the vertical.
There are bugs, but the new logo is sharp, the design system thoughtful, type usage strong, page headers and backgrounds make for a distinctive experience and easy read.
A list of short content called Story Stream — blurbs and links not unlike Twitter, feature prominently on the home page and at the bottom of content pages — allow editors to quickly highlight cool stuff outside of the article construct. The team is investing in comments, through the Vox platform, Coral. Comments are the closest web pages get to community, moving conversation from social back to the site. They have done a great job of integrated this functionality in an evolutionary way.
Let’s close with the professor (long time readers might remember him... a smart philosophy guy that occasionally offers context, if not clarity). I asked him about media then or now. He is probably the wrong guy to ask because he mostly reads books. He felt some media is better (TV), some worse (newspapers) and admitted that the massive explosion in content benefited him professionally.
He directed me to a hilarious Chuck Klosterman (recently authored The 90’s: A Book) article in Grantland over a decade ago entitled "Injustice for All: The Lou Reed / Metallica Album." The professor suggested it contained the deepest insight into what happened to media. Klosterman describes the collaboration to make the album “Lulu” as "a successful simulation of how it feels to develop schizophrenia while suffering from a migraine, although slightly less melodic." But the gist of the piece is, freed of the constraints of a commercial mass media machine, lots of content gets made, much of it unnecessary. The limitation of the old system may have homogenized, pushed lowest common denominator but the old machine was well-tuned to satisfy the needs of a passive consumer.
For much of my life, I lived under the myth that record labels were inherently evil. I was ceaselessly reminded that corporate forces stopped artists from doing what they truly desired; they pushed musicians toward predictable four-minute radio singles and frowned upon innovation, and they avariciously tried to turn art into a soulless commodity that MTV could sell to the lowest common denominator. And that did happen, sometimes. But some artists need that, or they end up making albums like this.
Put another way, everything is content now, some is great, lots isn't. For some it's a gift. Others remember a simpler world. To some this email is evidence of the problem or a testament to a better present. I am biased but prefer the latter.
The final word here has to go to Prince… his acceptance speech at the 1999 Yahoo Online Music Awards:
Don’t be fooled by the internet.
It’s cool to get on the computer.
But don’t let the computer get on you.
It’s cool to use the computer.
But don’t let the computer use you.
Y’all saw the Matrix.
There’s a war going on, the battlefield’s in the mind.
And the prize is the soul.
So… be careful.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Feels clean, money machine.
"100 Gecs” are American hyperpop duo Dylan Brady and Laura Les. Seb (son) liked the production and sent it over. I am glad he did. Thank the internet.