The ubiquitous internet and the accompanying information ecosystem challenge the functioning of the print and electronic media. It is quite possible that we are witnessing the last vestiges of the current structure of the mass media industry. Implied is the current definition of the mass media becoming obsolete.

Question marks thus hover over its sustained ability to fashion the narratives. Glancing at events in the Middle East in the recent times where the social media, notably micro blogging site Twitter and reporting platform Global Voices played major roles, seem to confirm the trend.

In India too, social media and blog tools have made considerable inroads into shaping the socio-political discourse. Mr. Narendra Modi’s key campaign strategy notably ‘Chai-pe-Charcha’ has added a new dimension to the political communication. Many so-called observers are sceptical and even critical about his attempts to bypass and even ignore conventional media. However, the analysis of the evolving media industry structure suggests otherwise.

The materials, tools, platforms made available by the nascent yet flourishing information ecosystem facilitates individuals increasingly becoming assertive in challenging the notions of the accepted top-down setting of the narrative.

The long-standing monopoly of the Left-liberal elite (in shaping the intellectual discourse in India) is under challenge through alternative narratives whose foundations lie in the tools offered by proliferation of the internet. The current piece would seek to go deeper into seeking reasons on the current challenges to mass media industry. While this analysis can be applied to host of information industries, for the present we will confine to mass media both print and electronic.

Richness Reach Trade-off and Communication

Fundamentally, the economics of things and economics of information work in different ways. In the former, the information, carried by things, is constrained to follow the linear physical value chain. Information thus constrained by physical mode of delivery is subject to the law of inverse relationship between richness and reach of information (Refer Figure I).

Reach, implies the number of people at home or work receive and exchange information. Richness, sub classified as bandwidth, customization and interactivity is inherent in the information itself. Bandwidth is the quantum of information that flows through channel. Then there exists a question about the degree of customization that is possible. Personal sales pitch can be more customized than a television advertisement. Interactivity refers to the information exchange being a dialogue or a monologue.

Figure- I Traditional Economics of Information- Richness –Reach Trade off

Source: Philip B Evans and Thomas Wurster, “The Strategy and the New Economics of Information”, Harvard Business Review, October 1997

 Communicating customized, interactive large bandwidth information required dedicated channels of communication, the costs of which restricted their reach. Messages to larger audiences meant compromises in terms of the richness of information and this holds true for companies, non-profit organizations, social campaigns and political parties. This pervasive trade-off shaped the nature of communication, collaboration and transaction both internal and external to the organization. The emergence of mass media is an outcome of this trade-off.

However, in electronic medium, the information unbundles itself from its physical carrier presenting numerous possibilities, the outcome being redundancy of the reach-richness trade-off.

Mass Media and Public Sphere

The emergence of the mass media as an integral and dominant constituent of the public sphere has a history of about two hundred and fifty years. In authoritarian states, the mass media is subject to total state control. Normally, mass media is independent and autonomous while subject to varying degrees of state oversight in most democracies. Privately owned media financially dependent on advertising markets flourish in many democratic regimes. Thus the organization of the mass media is a function of either state control or market demands. While attempts were made in building organizations independent of these, they were either too feeble or localized to make a decisive impact on the narrative.

Structurally, it was an integration of a certain technical structure combined with a certain economic cost structure. This limited the organizational forms the media might exist in and tilted the narrative to those who controlled the communication ecosystem. Further, the output, a set of cultural practices evolved, treated recipients of information as passive consumers of finished goods with negligible interactivity at best between producer and recipient. Small set of actors, defined as media, took on them to shape what they term as the discourse and expected the large recipient to accept it passively. In fact, “News” turned into a narrative produced by a complex negotiation between newsmakers and the media virtually imposing on the society.

The technical model adopted was a hub and spoke with unidirectional flow of information from the centre to the periphery. Given the high cost of hubs, the number of production facilities was very small. To reap economies of scale, the producers engaged in producing large number of identical copies of communication. With recipient systems being cheap and ubiquitous, each consumer received communication in identical form. Reaching large sections of audience implied trading off in terms of customization and interactivity. The return loop which is essential to communicate opinions and feedbacks from recipients to the producers was absent in the scheme of things. Dialogue was restricted to forms of communication like telephone which remained private conversations and outside the public sphere.

Therefore, the story was that very few producers engaged in high fixed cost and large volume production and thus the outcome was the emergence of traditional mass media, be it print or electronic as a vertically integrated value not very different from other businesses. In other words, economies of scale in different stages of value chain meant that a typical newspaper, or television channel or a radio station would be essentially a product bundle.

In a newspaper, the journalists collect the news from various sources, advertisers supply their copy, the editors it out, the press is where the news gets the physical manifestation and distributed to wide retail network in the morning. Each reader may not go through all the pages but scale of production and distribution makes it impossible to exclude yourself from subscribing to only select news items. The same held for television channels for long time though we have observed deconstruction in value chains to a good extent in recent years.

Therefore, the role of mass media is also an intermediary between journalists and passive reader/viewer. Political interviews were an extension of this role. Given the costs involved in engaging the electorate, the journalists on television, radio or newspapers functioned as an intermediary between the electorate and the political leader. Even in town hall debates, the reach was facilitated through broadcasts on television and radio. This economic necessity generalized the requirement of interaction of the political class with the media as means of engaging the electorate in order to win elections.

The internet however changed the rules of the game.

Networked Public Sphere

The Internet offers autonomy of choice for an individual recipient of information and communication. It facilitates multiple versions of narratives to be communicated allowing the exercise of choice on consumption and production of information. No longer would the structure treat the receivers as passive.

Neither would there be the case of a small set of producer-actors terming themselves as the media; and shaping the agenda to suit their market needs, or to the whims of their state masters or in creating and fostering their version of intellectual complex. Internet redefines the role for individuals not only to be participants in the debate but in shaping the narrative themselves.

Collection of opinion in the course of their daily routines, the individuals are able to move beyond the confines of private conversations to engagement with the rest of the fraternity thus giving an altogether new direction to the resultant narrative. Further, they are no longer bound to anybody’s dictum in terms of what, how and for whom can produce information. Moreover, unlike the town hall debates, the conversation is unconstrained by geography. The conversations offer meeting points for people with similar mind-sets though separated by thousands of miles in geographical terms. Each participant, with their own unique independent set of inputs ensure qualitative diversification and independence of information.

Decentralized production of information, knowledge and culture is the denouement of heterogeneous motivations in large number of consumer-producers. Web based platforms simplify the aggregation of the generated accounts. The emergence of non-proprietary alternative sources of communication capacity and information stimulates the narrative further.

Thus, probably for the first time in history, a cornucopia of information environment independent of the state and the market has been made possible.

Moreover, it is just not supplanting profit motive or ideological entrenchment but a profound increase of availability of sources of information empowering the individual to make their choices. Moreover, as many instances in recent past demonstrate, individual producers with their resources could often successfully challenge the entrenched ideological, state and profit oriented interests of the mass media.

Business leaders, political leaders or social reformers can directly connect to their intended audience in a conversation that need not be unidirectional. The role of journalists as intermediaries or agents of society (principal) have diminished rapidly. Yet, it would be unwise to write an epitaph for the traditional mediated communication infrastructure. In the fight for attention of the human mind, the structure developed on the paradigm of economics of things no longer commands monopoly.

The scarce human attention is now not only the consumer but also acts as the producer of information. Not merely opinion or debates through platforms like Twitter or Facebook even reporting various events and activities through platforms like Global Voices etc facilitate contribution to emergent-networked public sphere. This shifts the locus of control from the minority media actors to large diverse set of individuals. An understanding of this fundamental change driving beneath the media structures is essential.

Thus while interviews to print and electronic media may have had a role in the past, contemporary alternative channels not only exist but also flourish. As digital penetration deepens, internet driven, non-proprietary communication channels may fetch greater dividends than the conventional means. This, irrespective of the outcome, makes interactions like ‘Chai-pe-Charcha’ interesting and potentially game changing for political communication.

References

  1. Yochai Benkler, “Wealth of Networks”, Yale University Press, 2005, available at www.benkler.org/Benkler_Wealth_Of_Networks.pdf
  2. Philip B Evans and Thomas Wurster, “The Strategy and the New Economics of Information”, Harvard Business Review, October 1997
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Prashant Kulkarni
Prashant Kulkarni teaches economics, a digital economy and globalization at a leading B-School. His area of interest lies in dissecting resource contestations and human behavior at the intersections of digitization, urbanization and globalization.