Chris Anderson redefines “media”!

I wouldn’t have read this Wired article at all, except that Peter Suber quoted a chunk of it…including portions of these two paragraphs.

The most common of the economies built around free is the three-party system. Here a third party pays to participate in a market created by a free exchange between the first two parties. Sound complicated? You’re probably experiencing it right now. It’s the basis of virtually all media. [Emphasis added.]

In the traditional media model, a publisher provides a product free (or nearly free) to consumers, and advertisers pay to ride along. Radio is “free to air,” and so is much of television. Likewise, newspaper and magazine publishers don’t charge readers anything close to the actual cost of creating, printing, and distributing their products. They’re not selling papers and magazines to readers, they’re selling readers to advertisers. It’s a three-way market.

Virtually all media. Isn’t that interesting? So, just to make it clear:

  • Media: Commercial broadcast TV and radio. Most magazines and newspapers. Portions of the web.
  • Not media: Books. Sound recordings. DVDs. Movies in general. Premium cable (HBO, Showtime, etc.) Other portions of the web.

OK, so he said virtually all Hmm. Let’s see what the government figures are for 2002 (they’ve changed since then, to be sure–but not enough to throw the percentages off all that much):

  • Broadcast TV and radio, magazines, newspapers: $134 billion.
  • Books, motion pictures and sound recordings: $106 billion.

I’m not sure that I can come up with any usage of “virtually all” that would fit $134 out of $240. Maybe my command of the English language is lacking. Or maybe my command of absurd generalizations is insufficient for me ever to get a job with Wired. I can live with that.


Update: For some reason, I missed the Statistical Abstract when I was at the Census Bureau’s website. StatAbs has more recent figures–for 2005.

  • Newspapers, periodicals, broadcasting: $149 billion
  • Books, motion pictures, sound recordings: $120 billion

The percentages haven’t changed significantly: just under 45% of “the media” are paid for.

7 Responses to “Chris Anderson redefines “media”!”

  1. Laura Says:

    Well, I actually do generally think of media as being news media. In terms of what the word actually means, yes, books and movies and sound recordings should be included (and paintings, and . . .). But when someone says “the media ___,” I generally think they’re talking about newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. That’s definitely what they’re talking about if they say “mainstream media” (I think). I’ve only skimmed the article, but I was disappointed that it didn’t seem to touch on one of the other traditional (and eroding) sources of support for news media: government subsidies by way of postal rates.

    Ah well. Another problem for another post.

  2. walt Says:

    The article actually seems to be another “everything can be FREE” pitch, about seven years after I thought that concept had run its course. I don’t plan to read it carefully, frankly; life is too short.

    Come to think of it, there’s a pretty big chunk of periodical publishing–a billion or two–for which Anderson’s statement is nonsense: Scholarly journals.

    As for definitions, that gets pretty tricky. Look up “mainstream media” in Wikipedia, you get redirected to “mass media”–and the article includes books, films, sound recordings, videogames, blogs, pretty much everything except person-to-person communication. (And, for that matter, Wikipedia’s commentary on “mass” contradicts its listing of media: Most magazines, for example, are specialized and aimed at niche markets, not “specifically envisioned and designed to reach a very large audience such as the population of a nation state.”)

    “News media”? Well…I’d say 90% of broadcast media isn’t news, and that’s probably true for 90% of magazines as well.

    I can think of one term for which Anderson’s article is accurate: “Ad-supported media.” But, of course, that’s circular: Ad-supported media are supported by advertising.

  3. Doug Says:

    The thing that distinguishes books, dvds, and cds here is the fact that they cost so much more. I can get any non-cable tv show or radio program for free. Most newspapers cost a fraction of a dollar for paper, free online. Contrast that with books and dvds, which generally cost considerably more. Even the cheapest dvd rentals cost more than the price of a major paper on Sunday.

  4. walt Says:

    Doug: That’s certainly true–but that only argues against Anderson’s whole point, that “virtually all media” are primarily supported by advertising. And, for that matter, his “everything can be free” treatise.

    Books, DVDs and CDs cost money (as do downloads). That doesn’t make them non-media. It does make them non-free. Years ago, I heard the description of media as “content wrapped around advertising”–and that was also an overly-narrow definition of media.

  5. Mark Says:

    My DVD rentals are $1.50/each and could be $1/each if I desired. This includes new releases and is good for 3 days. I’m pretty certain that I cannot get any major paper in this town for less than that.

    This does nothing to define media, of course, but is just a point that cost (probably) should have little to nothing to do with a definition of media.

    As for “everything can be free” I will remain silent [One of the few cases where I accept the "If you cannot say any thing nice, do not say ...].

  6. walt Says:

    Mark: Hmm. Your primary point is true, as far as I’m concerned: Cost can only define media on a circular basis. On the other hand, the San Francisco Chronicle costs $0.50 at the newsstand, and most of us would only use a rental DVD for one day, so you could say the DVD’s a little more expensive. (The Chron was $0.25 in Santa Clara County, where we live, because there was somewhat of a circulation war with the San Jose Mercury-News, but the owners made nice.)

    (Actually, the Chron’s an excellent example of the ad-related pricing of newspapers, setting aside its first-rate SFGate online site with its eight million unique readers a month: Our seven-days-a-week subscription costs us $230/year. But they offer a special Wednesday-through-Sunday subscription at $39.95/six months: Just over one-third the price. Monday and Tuesday papers consistently have the least advertising, by far–so much so that the Chron’s now combined the Business & Sports sections on those days. (Weirdly: Business starts on the back page and moves toward the front.) Thus, the inescapable conclusion that advertising drives the business model.)

  7. John Dupuis Says:

    This one by David Weinberger is also cut from the same cloth.


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