Our (We) Media Dissonance

The sky is falling! Newspapers aren’t going to survive. They’re declaring bankruptcy en masse. The Seattle Post Intelligencer is the latest considering going digital-only, I was told last night at We Media, along with the San Francisco Chronicle. Others already have given up some or all of their print editions. TV networks are bleeding, book publishers are laying off hundreds, magazines are shuttering. Even Web advertising is down for the big guys.

And, yet, it’s a time of incredible creative foment, when tools of creation, distribution and connection — and the ability to make money from it all — have been given to more of us than ever. When multi-billion-dollar companies can be created in a few years on the back of a search algorithm or by using the Web’s distributive power to sell books and the Kindle electronic book reader. When solo bloggers can make fine livings with nothing more than a laptop, energy and a few writing and coding skills. And connections  the technology gives us all the ability to make. (Witness Ushahidi’s ability to save lives using open-source tools avaialble to all)

Last night at the We Media conference opening reception, I asked keynoter John Zogby, the noted pollster (who was flogging his new book , “The Way We’ll Be”), about this dissonance, about what he finds in his survey of America, this odd mix of hype and near-hysteria about the economic downturn against the more than half-full part of the glass I also see.

He, like many , cited Schumpeter’s creative destruction. And he said that while the American people get it (they have adjusted to lower pay and expectations, and realize what’s happening, and have been realizing it lo these past 15 years), it seems our institutions haven’t, that they don’t realize what’s happening to them. (That in a way is a quick definition of Schumpeter’s thesis: that the big don’t get it and fall as the upstarts come in to disrupt them.) He also framed much of his remarks  in terms of his findings that apparently form the foundation of his book: 18-29 year-olds are part of a new, international world citizenry, more interested in making friends and connection via interest than geography, able to travel widely and easily, expecting to have 10 or more places of employment in their lives, expecting to feel personally empowerd.

It is odd, though, that the institutions are ultimately a combine of the people who presumably “get” what Zogby says they do. Zogby and We conducted a poll that supports the assertion of distrust in institutions: “Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the leadership currently provided by large companies, government and traditional media – and they are not confident the leadership from these groups will improve in the future.”  The poll found much more confidence in small business, entrepreneurship and science. In the words of We Media co-founder Andrew Nachison, it’s “a historic, global shift in human behavior and organization. A new era.”

(An aside: I remember the feeling of disorientation I felt in 1997 in Hong Kong, having gone there for Handover of the territory back to China from Britain. It was early days of the Web. I was the founding international producer of ABCNEWS.com, and was there on my first international assignment for the site. It was me, my camera, and a reporter’s notebook, shooting video of artists, dissidents, shoppers, businesspeople, politicians, and putting it up for all to see, combined with a bunch of writing and still photos. Total cost: airfare, hotel room, and some telecommunications and videotape. In the hotel, the news anchors like Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel had taken over a floor, running thick cable, established large editing suites and lit studios, spending, I would guess, hundreds of thousands of dollars to put together their broadcasts. Of course, the order of magnitude was incomparable, as was the quality. But I felt, then, the beginnings of a gulf between the solo and institutional practitioner — even though I was part of the institution — that is now coming home to roost more strongly.)

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