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Posted: November 01, 2010

Rundles wrap up: Marshall-ing a new age

Jeff Rundles

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In August I caught an article from the Los Angeles Times concerning media mogul Rupert Murdoch's plan to launch a national digital newspaper with paid content and directed toward the new tablet computers, like iPads, as well as mobile devices. The first thing that popped into my head was Marshall McLuhan.

I mentioned this to several people, and only those of a certain age had any idea of the connection. Marshall McLuhan, unfortunately, is now largely forgotten, at least in pop culture, and that's too bad since he was the darling of it 40 years ago. He coined the term "global village" 50 years ago, predicted the demise of print culture and foresaw the Internet 30 years before it existed. But then, McLuhan was fond of saying, "You know nothing of my work."

His most popular contribution to modern culture was the idea that "the medium is the message," and of course "the medium is the massage," sometimes construed as "mass-age." It's a very sophisticated analysis, but suffice to say that it was, say, television that mattered, not the content that was on television. The television itself, whether it featured children's shows or violence, changed the culture and altered personal habits and dynamics.

Then I caught wind of a change at the Grand Junction Sentinel. You'll have to be a paid subscriber "in order to view an entire story you'd like to read." The paper, through its publisher Jay Seaton, acknowledged that "15 years ago, we got it wrong. As an industry."

I have to applaud both Murdoch and Seaton for trying to do something. Lord knows the newspaper and magazine business in the country has been woefully slow to pick up on the electronic information age. To its detriment. Someone had to step up with a semblance of a revenue plan for a new era.

But I can't help thinking that they are still getting it wrong, and there's a lesson in here for every business. As McLuhan once noted, "We become what we behold," so I seriously doubt that transferring a now- archaic medium to an electronic medium and then charging for it will find much success. We refer to news organizations collectively as "the media," but for all intents and purposes they - we - are simply one form of content. The medium was a newspaper or a magazine, there were lifestyle habits that grew up to accommodate them, and it has all, obviously, shifted drastically.

The important media now are portable, hand-held electronic devices that keep people in constant contact with each other and interconnected with everything else. The context is radically different. Think of it this way: Television in its heyday didn't just put newspaper content on the air or simply show theatrical movies. It invented a whole new concept for content that took advantage of the new medium. It was the medium - television - that mattered, not 
the content.

So I can't imagine that a "newspaper" delivered electronically will change the game. The news organization itself has to be completely transformed not in the delivery of its content, but in the creation of the content itself. Think bloggers. Think Daily Beast. Think interactive. What is produced won't be in a "subscriber's" living room or on the front porch at a specified time, but rather in his pocket and her purse, always on, ever changing, constantly updated, under siege every moment, and at once immediately disposable and accessible forever.

But since I know nothing of McLuhan's work, I'll let him have the last word:

"The next medium, whatever it is - it may be the extension of consciousness - will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind." - Marshall McLuhan, 1962
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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