Off Message January 2007

The Match Game

Pairing content with medium has become a make-or-break art in today's media world
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The first time I heard about what would come to be called the surge, I was driving late at night, listening to a BBC news report on satellite radio. Citing "a senior administration source," the report said that President Bush would soon "reveal a new Iraq strategy," which would include sending more troops to that embattled nation.

Did it matter that I received the news this way, rather than in print or on a screen? If, instead of hearing it on a radio channel, I'd seen the story on the BBC's Web site or one of its TV broadcasts, or read a pickup in the morning newspaper, would that have affected my understanding of it? Would it have changed my "read" on the story as it played out through this week, culminating in Bush's big announcement?

On the most basic level, the answer is no, it doesn't matter that I first heard this particular piece of news on the radio. I'm glad I encountered the troop-increase story just as it broke—the BBC beat the pack on this one—and before the word "surge" got attached and became the first zombie-chant banality of the new year. But those factors had nothing to do with the mode of delivery.

The point is: Who cares? Print, radio, TV, digital—it's all the same, as long as the story itself doesn't change. Right?

Maybe not. We're living through an interesting moment in media evolution, when it's dawning on the news establishment that medium and message both matter, and that they work together in a kind of symbiosis.

A dozen years ago, at the start of the digital-news era, a lot of media outlets assumed that the way to thrive in this new landscape of news was to be agnostic as to medium. The trick was to spread the same content across various "platforms" and thereby pull in audience. It wasn't the vehicle that mattered, but whether it arrived at its destination, which is you and me.

That philosophy gave us, among other things, those baggy newspaper Web sites that try to be one-stop destinations for every kind of content—fact and opinion, hard news and analysis, sobriety and attitude—via text, image, audio, video, chats, blogs, you name it. Although convenient and often useful, such sites have a serious fish-nor-fowl problem. By being all things to all consumers, they lack the identity that builds loyalty. Not surprisingly, few have turned a profit.

Now big media companies are trying a new approach—use different kinds of media to deliver different kinds of content. Analysis and big-idea commentary run on paper, while hard news and bloggy of-the-moment fare go online.

Exhibit A: In an effort to survive the brutal culling now under way in the print media, Time magazine is reshaping itself in the direction of what New York Times media columnist David Carr calls "point-of-view journalism," hiring brand-name commentators to weigh in weekly on Big Issues. Meanwhile, the magazine has redesigned its Web site to play up breaking news and blogs.

From the archives:

"Let's Get Small" (January 9, 2007)
Smaller is considered better for most media delivery devices. But for The Wall Street Journal? By William Powers

Exhibit B: The Wall Street Journal's redesign, just out last week, envisions the paper itself as a vehicle for what publisher L. Gordon Crovitz calls "what-it-means journalism," while the Web site is "focused on what's happening right now." Los Angeles Times media writer Tim Rutten likens this division of labor to the old split between morning and afternoon newspapers, where the former were more about hard news, the latter about analysis and context.

It's a nice, clean distinction—perhaps a little too clean. As my BBC experience shows, hard news is the most fungible of content; a scoop still feels like a scoop however it arrives, even on paper. And serious analytical writing can work beautifully online if presented in a format that doesn't seem rushed and jangly, i.e., one that mimics certain qualities of paper media. The Web site Arts & Letters Daily, which picks up think pieces from all over (and, disclosure, has a link to this column), has been doing this nicely for years.

But the sorting out of the media has just begun. A million subtleties will emerge, and those who grasp them and become adept at the deep game of matching content to medium will survive and prosper. They always do.

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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