During the recent media reform bill debate in Australia the considerable confusion about the role of the Internet in providing diversity became evident again.
Many people seem to believe that the Internet only provides diversity if one or more major new media outlets emerge with audiences that rival those of the existing monopolistic (eg pay TV) and oligopolistic (eg freeTV, newspapers) media companies.
The key fallacy in this way of thinking about diversity is to see the Internet as a replication of the existing vertical aggregation media models; where costs and/or technology put contraints on access to production and distribution.
The Internet is in fact a horizontal media model that is radically different to anything we have seen before; so different that many people have difficulty recognizing it as media at all and tend to define it out of existence.
A delicious moment came when the Graham Samuel, boss of the ACCC, Australia's competition regulator agreed with a Senator's statement that the Internet did not, or did not yet, provide media diversity in Australia. Delicious because the proceedings were being webcast and thereby provided an alternate way for people to access that event and the information and opinions discussed without having to rely on the Canberra Press Gallery and its severely limited coverage.
There have been several efforts to replicate the vertical aggregation media model on the Internet in Australia. The best known of these are Crikey, Australian Policy Online, New Matilda and Online Opinion. To me these are the least interesting, although important, of the new approaches spawned by the Internet and particularly web 2.0.
More interesting are the horizontal plays, these are growing rapidly and take an array of formats and purposes.
Essentially, they bypass traditional media. many are not media in any shape or form; but they all do what the media claims to do. They provide information and they encourage dialogue. In fact, they provide a lot more information and opportunities for discussion then the traditional ever could, or would.
Here are some types and examples:
1) Passionate experts - there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bloggers and podcasters in Australia already who write about topics that have long been considered the bread and butter of traditional media. These are not kids writing about their joys and angst. These are experts, usually passionate, who are using the new medium to share their knowledge and opinions with others. There are great examples in Australia of bloggers in technology, politics, economics, food, popular culture and so on. It annoys me when commentators say that blogging doesn't provide content, many of these bloggers and podcasters provide information which is vastly superior in their specialist areas to that in media outlets. The reason is that it is written by experts and not by journalists. They know what they are talking about, in some depth. Bloggers also often link to studies and so on which I can follow-up and read even more depth on, if I want to. They facilitate the learning and discovery process. The media is gradually starting to do this but its a painfully slow process. The diversity here is the direct access to large amounts of expertise, and informed opinion.
2) Organisations - Still new to Australia but interesting nonetheless. I'm thinking of corporate blogs and podcasts by organisations like Telstra, Findit.com.au, CSIRO and the Lowy Institute. I'm also thinking of RSS feeds by people like the Federal Government and the ALP. I get the headlines from all the media releases put out by both sides of politics (gee there's a lot). I don't have to rely on the media giving me snatches of this content or telling me what is important. I read the stuff I'm interested in and I select it from everything available and not through the narrow prism of journalistic and editorial agendas. Organisations like the Parliament can also webcast committee proceedings and inquiries in their entirety whereas the media only provides the occasional 15 sec grab along with the journalists' interpretation of its importance. All of this activity is being conducted by organisations to by pass and supplement media relations. More of it will happen and it provides a much richer media (as in information and opinion dissemination) environment. The diversity here results because organisations can easily and cheaply communicate directly, unedited, to audiences, large or small.
3) Stand-alone businesses. This is the smallest category. They are horizontal models (they don't involve a lot of aggregation and editing and they don't have tight space restrictions so they can expand rapidly to meet demand for content). There are some well-known examples in Australia including Darren Rowse's suite of blogs and Cameron Reilly's The Podcast Network. Like traditional media they rely on advertising but their start-up and running costs are much lower. They are making money but it is hard to build audiences and retain them in a horizontal environment where the barriers to entry approach zero. The diversity here is the capacity to compete for audiences by providing niche content.
All this even added together might look like small beer compared to the megalothic media empires we're used to but ask yourself why those same media propreitors are so keen to get into the horizontal marketplace? Why did Murdoch pay hundreds of millions for MySpace? Why did Google pay a billion or two for YouTube? Why is every media outlet (well except the AFR) eagerly putting up blogs and podcasts and offering RSS feeds?
The media world is going horizontal. That doesn't mean that newspapers, television and radio are doomed. Far from it. But it does mean that we are entering a different world, a far more diverse media world and our regulators and policy-makers need to understand it.