Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mass Media and the Crisis of Profitability

As I wrote in a prior blog, I believe we are in a major deflationary and de-leveraging spiral stemming from a crisis of profitability (best summarized as a lack of enough total profitability in investment that employs enough people). Since the decision to invest is made collectively (by incorporated institutions) and individually (by wealthy individuals), any given private sector economy starts with the investor and ends with the investor. It is driven from the top down, economic action only takes place on this if those who control enough capital (some industries require more money/capital than others) invest that capital--and they only invest that capital if they are going to profit or perceive they are going to make a profit.

With that in mind, while I think this is an aggregate phenomenon (as in, I think this Deflationary event exists on the whole, when you add up all the parts, but not necessarily in every sector), there are some sectors of the economy, where the fall in profitability has been much more rapid lately, and that's in the for profit media.

For profit media has not always been with us. It is largely a product of the 20th century. 19th newspapers were political partisan newspapers, and "Nearly all weekly and daily papers were party organs until the early 20th century". The 20th century saw the growth in the power in corporations after they were granted the rights of immortal persons in an 1886 judicial decision (corporations are at all times and countries, artificial creations of government). Alongside the growth in political and economic power, came the rise of the corporate press. Journalistic standards would be developed and enhanced, supposedly "unbiased" and "objective" reporters would be trained to cover both sides of the story, and audiences and citizens were transitioned to this new model. Part of the shift came from the ability to finance newspapers from advertising instead of at the point of purchase of a paper. As the model began to shift to an advertisement driven press, it changed the market. The model of the producer selling content to his audience became the producer selling his audience to an advertiser.

Chris Anderson notes in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, that the advertiser is subsidizing the content so it appears free to the consumer. TV shows are free if you watch the ads, radio and print were built on the same model. We agree that the model of news is changing. In an interview with Der Spiegel he comments that "now that you don't need this access to a commercial channel to distribute (news), anyone can do it. What we do is still useful but what other people do is equally useful. I don't think our way is the most important and it is certainly not the only way of conveying information. So this is why we're in a funny phase. It's going to take us a decade or two to figure out what it is we're doing."
What I anticipate is a return to the partisan press. To produce propaganda (or Public Relations) is ultimately a cheap endeavor, and will continue to fall in cost. To distribute your message has become easier in the sense that it is possible to connect with many people more easily--but it has become more difficult to cut through the noise of so many options competing for neurological real estate. In 1964, you couldn't miss the Beatles or the basic propaganda line established in the U.S. media. In 2014, art, culture, and politics will relate differently because of a continued fragmentation of common social reference points that were once distributed by the corporate propaganda system in the 20th century.
In its place, my guess is that political parties will lock in their own organs of getting out the message. To an extent the GOP has used this strategy already, with considerable success. But this only had the possibility of building a strong base. Completely bypassing the system of corporate media filtering met its match under Clinton and now Obama, both candidates being backed by major corporate money. And while the GOP developed FOX News, and built upon its religious and social conservative base, FOX did and still relies on the advertising for profit model to finance itself. It is an unofficial media organ, tapping into the base created by the conservative movement.
But where advertising was in essence required under the old system, the new system will produce the capacity to distribute information purely for the sake of the message. The option to produce content under the advertising regime will probably remain for some time, but the news outlets, already in a state of decline, will most certainly be replaced by the voices of factions as well as a coalition/party. Whoever wins the game of organizing enough people into a single coalition will be the side that wins the political battles of the future.

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