2009: The Great Beginning

December 15, 2008

2009"Some of the worst things in my life never happened" is the lament of those whose imagination often leads to the elevation of life's molehills into mountains. Some people were born with the innate ability to get ahead of themselves, and while this has fueled creative advancement, it's also led to much human suffering. Anxiety is the flip side of creativity's coin.

Others rarely, if ever, spend time downstream and are often stuck in the rut of what happened yesterday. These are the people who can't let go, who remember the precise moment of each of life's wounds. Such looking backwards is the gift of those who guide the cause-and-effect, seemingly emotionless problem-solving of modern culture. Depression, however, is often its internal manifestation.

And so it is that both groups find themselves staring into the chaos of an unknown tomorrow, and this is a frightening contemplation for media companies, who are largely run by those who look backwards. Bean counting, after all, is based on what is known or can be known through a sophisticated obsession with the rear-view mirror, but if there's one certainty about tomorrow, it's that it will not even resemble yesterday.

This is bringing about the gut-wrenching realization for some of us that culture has passed us by, an intense feeling of abandonment that, if left unchecked, will wreak its havoc in the form of the institutional and personal depression that is already being felt in many circles.

Welcome to twenty-oh-nine.

Photo by Nicholas T via FlickrI've been writing about the coming of this year since 2005, and nearly every thought has been ominous. Was it the stuff of mountains and molehills, or was it correctly reading the signs? I claim no special insight, for the signs have been there for anyone to see. I've used terms like deep darkness, dark clouds, and a cloud of locusts, all pointing to a perfect storm against local media in 2009 that I wrote about two years ago:

National business is going away at an accelerating pace. Network compensation is all but gone. Stock prices continue to fall as investors' nerves give way to full-blown panic attacks. Staffs are being cut, and there will be no election or Olympics to offset declining audience shares and sales. Some companies may not make it...

...By 2009, this storm may already have knocked down towers and crushed printing presses everywhere. The confluence of forces coming together is certainly destructive for the status quo...

You could say that I accurately predicted the bankruptcy of the media companies and the massive layoffs in the media sector, but as I said, these were "no brainer" calls, for pending calamity has simply been obvious.

This year, it's different. Something new has dawned deep inside of me that I wish to express as we're about to turn the page on 2008. I don't see darkness anymore. The caution lights have been replaced by green. I'm overwhelmed by the positive brightness of opportunity, and this has not been the case for the last five years. I'm not saying that 2009 will be a cakewalk, for the storm is upon us, but the skies aren't just dark anymore. The storm's finally here, and it's time to start thinking about what will be left when it's over. That's where my mind has been for the last few months.

Perhaps it's my view of culture, for I filter current events through the lens of postmodernism, a term that describes the massive cultural change in the West. If you've read my book or any of my old essays on the subject, you know that I believe that we're witnessing the influences of a second Gutenberg moment, and that the impact of this one will be greater than the impact of the first. Movable type and John Wycliffe's common language translation of The Bible released knowledge into the minds of the masses. It had been kept from Western Europeans by the Roman Church, which dominated premodern culture, and as the priesthood watched in horror, one 15th Century cleric wrote that "the jewel of the elites is in the hands of the laity." But that release of knowledge produced the wave after wave of cultural innovation that created the modern age.

So it is today that knowledge is once again being spread — through technology — on a level history has never seen. The jewel of knowledge is ripping apart the institutions of modernity, most of which exist based on some form of protected or restricted knowledge.

And so the culture is being turned on its head, for the fruit of the modern era was the Industrial Age and the fruit of the postmodern era is and will be the Age of Participation. "I experience, therefore I understand," is the mantra of the new age, and in this there is great potential for the West and its reborn institutions. Is there trouble on either side? Of course, but this is a time to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon, for we cannot steer a steady course with our attention focused on the waves that are buffeting the hull of our vessel.

I listened to an NPR discussion the other day on the state of the newspaper industry. One of the panelists lamented the loss of "real" reporting, to which Jeff Jarvis responded that journalism is actually going back to what it was before the artificial hegemony known as objectivity became the self-serving mantra of the elitist press. "This is a positive thing for journalism," argued Jeff, and I nodded my head in agreement. It felt like being time-shifted back 100 years to the debates between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Dewey trusted the people in a democracy; Lippmann did not, and it is that distrust that built "professional" journalism.

"The whole 'red state, blue state' nonsense is a creation of the press," Jarvis blared. Nobody ever asked the people if we wanted to be so divided, but that's what we have. Lippmann would've loved "red state, blue state," but Dewey would've seen the insanity of it. Lippmann felt the press should be an educated elite that helped shape life for the poor, disenfranchised rest of us. Dewey believed in the voice of the people, which he didn't think belonged with an educated elite. Dewey would've loved the blogosphere, that cacophony of voices that drives the neatly organized professional press nuts.

So here it is, the holiday season of 2008, which means 2009 is just around the corner. Fear dominates the media world like it never has before, and its paralyzing mist has frozen progress in its tracks.

David Carr published a fascinating piece in the New York Times recently decrying the media echo that the sky is falling. After rattling off a relentless list of bad news items, Carr made this remarkable observation:

Every modern recession includes a media seance about how horrible things are and how much worse they will be, but there have never been so many ways for the fear to leak in. The same digital dynamics that drove the irrational exuberance — and marketed the loans to help it happen — are now driving the downside in unprecedented ways.

Carr went on to quote Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, a book that explains why people do things that defy explanation.

"The media messages that are repeating doom and gloom affect every one, not just people who really have trouble and should make changes, but people who are fine. That has a devastating effect on the economy."

So it is with media's negative message to itself. We're stuck in a funk, waiting for some sign that it's okay to breathe again. For most, it's been a case of do more with less, which assumes a time ahead when we'll have more again. That is a dangerous assumption. What's really needed is a reinvention, and this should be our focus for the coming year. But reinventing by downsizing is different than reinventing based on opportunity, and this is the real challenge for all media companies in 2009.

It must begin with our business model, for that is what's broken. It's not a case of "business will come back when the recession's over," because there's not a shred of evidence to support that notion, so, at best, that's just wishful thinking. There's no doubt that the recession is influencing the death spiral of the newspaper industry, for example, but the industry's problems are much deeper. Business for mass media will never return to the glory days, because the "mass" is what has been disrupted. Those who choose to wait it out in hopes of such a return will be the real losers of the year. Instead, we need to be focusing on six things that will influence reinvention in 2009.

  1. We must begin with our customers, both the people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) and the people formerly known as the advertisers. Lost in all the hoopla about "who's going to fund 'real' journalism" is the reality that we have chased people away in the name of serving them, for our service has actually been to ourselves. That's not to dismiss the quality work that's been done in the past, but the reality is that there is a huge difference between meeting the needs of the community and meeting the needs of shareholders. The whole world of marketing is built on the terms of warfare, where the fleeing masses are seen as an enemy to be conquered. Well, guess what? The audience has always known this, and now they have ways to escape our clever bombardment. Any attempt to serve the information needs of the public must be genuine, or it will fail in the end.

  2. Our new business mission is the enabling of commerce in our communities, not the serving of advertising. Madison Avenue needs a static system to thrive, but Madison Avenue is also in disruption, and we need to see past it in order to create new value for our companies. The classified advertising upon which the whole newspaper industry was built began as a way to enable commerce in the towns and cities of the culture. We must return to those roots and creatively exploit technology to serve the business interests of the communities we serve. Those who do this — and especially first — will be those with the brightest of all futures.

  3. We must make up our minds that the future is more important than today and have the courage to make decisions that bring new value to our companies, rather than clinging to old models. Media companies have given lip service to the concept of driving the car and fixing it at the same time, because the needs of the next quarter continue to outweigh the needs of the company. This has to change, and investors need to support that change. You may say, "Good luck with that," but the alternative is death, and that's permanent.

  4. We will find successful any tactics that enable our customers to participate in the world that we used to have all to ourselves. That includes helping TPFKATA do what we do, and I'm not speaking of exploiting their content for our mass marketing gain. I'm talking about growing the disruption of personal media, for only in so doing will we have a seat at that table. We have knowledge they need, to say nothing of vast archives that can fuel new business for years to come. The postmodern world is one of participation, and we can do no better than to help people participate.

  5. On the Web, we will find that Continuous News — our version of history in progress — is the best definition of our new mandate as media companies. And the extent to which we can make that ongoing process available in any unbundled form, the better and more profitable we'll be in the long run. News IS a conversation, and the pros have two missions in the conversation. One, somebody has to start it. Two, we can advance it, but to think we are the only people capable of delivering "the news" is to assign ourselves to the tar pits before we even take a step.

  6. We should pay close attention to our incoming President's plan to make "ubiquitous Internet access" a key part of economic recovery, for if we are moving from the industrial to the information age, such access will be the economic infrastructure of tomorrow. Net neutrality and conflicts between the public and private sectors will be critically important as this initiative moves forward, but this infrastructure must be created. That means that in everything we do downstream, only the essentials of the web that we know today will matter, for as the years go by, today's web will seem increasingly primitive in comparison with what unfolds. The fundamentals won't change, however, and it is these fundamentals that require our attention as media companies today. We are woefully uneducated about such matters, and that must change.

We'll doubtless see more attempts to take companies private, more bankruptcies, more layoffs and more economic bad news in 2009, but we must keep these items in perspective, for 2009 is not the end but the beginning.

Henry AdamsIn recent weeks, I've been drawn increasingly to the autobiography of Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams), and especially his recollections of the 1900 Paris Exposition (World's Fair). The grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams, Henry Adams was a man who ran in elite circles and ought to have known about the cultural trends that would eventually rock his world. However, he was unprepared for the helpless feeling that came over him, as he stood before The Dynamo in the Galerie des Machines. The twin, 40-foot tall generators symbolized the dawning of the industrial age, and Adams was humbled in their presence. He wrote of their godlike powers.

"...to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring..."

Adams' book is written in the third-person, even though it's an autobiography, and the detachment of such prose serves well to describe the emptiness in his gut. "...lying in the Gallery of Machines," he wrote, "his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new..."

This is precisely the way most of us feel as we ponder the future and a new age. Industry has moved elsewhere, where the cost of labor is cheaper, and technology has stripped away many of the jobs that the industrial age required, so the very creations of the age are dispatching it without so much as a glimmer of concern. The Information Age — the Age of Participation — has just begun, and already there are amazing things happening in our culture.

Whereas the Industrial Age forced the creation of powerful city states (the labor force had to be centrally located), the Information Age allows us to be where we want to be. Watch for movement to friendly, peaceful surroundings, where the locals have been smart enough to build hubs along the information superhighway. Contrarians will argue that people working from home will be isolated, but from what? What new businesses will spring up to cater to American workers in the future?

Whereas modernity — that which drove industry — was built on the twin gods of science and reason, postmodernism sees limits therein, so we'll see a renaissance of religion, only it won't be built on hierarchical dogma. Of all the things I will likely miss when I'm gone, this is something I'd truly like to witness. At the end of the modern era, we see our culture lacking the internal governor that democracy requires, and I think you'll see this change as the years go by. Will it be built upon anything we've known in the past? I doubt it, for with Barack Obama's "ubiquity of access" comes ubiquity of knowledge, and that will benefit all of humankind.

Whereas the Industrial Age brought with it vertical silos of institutional knowledge, power and separation, we'll see more horizontal connectivity in the Age of Participation, and less hierarchical command and control. This will draw us together and reduce costs for everyone involved, and this, too, is a bright light ahead.

Whereas the Industrial Age brought us corporate marketing, the Age of Participation heralds the world of personal marketing and personal branding and a time of influence in expanding circles, rather than top-to-bottom. The time to gain traction in this world is today, for today's action will determine your place in tomorrow's culture.

The defense of cyberspace — the whole electromagnetic space — will become the top priority of government, for our enemies won't need bombs to destroy a connected society. But depending on the breadth of knowledge ubiquity, the whole matter of friends and enemies will be up for grabs.

So the problematic days of the precipice upon which we all seem to be standing are not an end, but an exciting new beginning, one that will push the citizens of the 21st Century to new accomplishments, new values, new business opportunities, new leadership, and new wealth. What will be your role in the Age of Participation? What will be your company's? 2009 is a year to make those choices for ourselves, for a culture in transition is a time of incredible opportunity.

Years from now, people will look back and say, "I only wish I was around back then, because they had choices we don't have today."

Let's not get so caught up in anxiety or depression that we lose sight of that.