In newsmedia industry, message trumps medium


Almost 50 years ago, Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.”

The 1960s were a golden age of mass media. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was clearly significant, but the fact we saw it together, live on television, was significant as well. Millions of people saw the same event at the same time; that had not happened before. Professor McLuhan said the way we observed the message was as important as the message itself. “The medium,” he said, “is the message.”

As Internet connectivity reached billions and social networks connected hundreds of millions, we’ve experienced another “medium is the message” moment. Speakers at the INMA World Congress last week in Los Angeles talked about how newsmedia companies needed to embrace new technology, to integrate print and digital, to move into the future of digital connectedness. It seems the message from the World Congress might have been “the medium.”

But let’s look backward before we move forward. The myopic focus on a new medium, a new technology, has been a pattern throughout history.

Imagine having been present when the new technology of language was first created. Watching two people making noises and apparently understanding each other would have been astounding. You probably would have rushed back to your cave and (if you could talk) said, “You wouldn’t believe what I just saw! Two people talking!” The technology of language was in the foreground; the medium was indeed the message. But, with time, the technology moved to the background. It was no longer so important that you could speak; what you said is what mattered. “The medium is the message” changed to “the message being the message.”

The same held true for another world-changing technology: writing. The first time people realised that scribbles on a page actually meant something would have been mind-boggling, incomprehensible. All the talk would have been about the technology. But as with language, eventually the technology moved to the background. Less important than the fact you could write was what you wrote.

Of course, it was the same pattern with printing. If you lived 300 years ago and owned a book, people would have knocked on your door in the middle of the night just to see it. You would have proudly shown it off just like people do with their new iPads today. The technology was in the foreground. But, just like in the first two examples, the technology moved to the background. It wasn’t so important that you could publish but what you published. The message is the message.

And that’s exactly what’s happening today. We are consumed with the technology. What can it do? Who has it? How do they use it? What is coming next? How expensive or inexpensive is it? The technology is clearly in the foreground and — make no mistake — it is exciting. But, as before, that technology is moving to the background. The new technology is becoming commonplace. The changes, incremental. Once again, we are moving from “the medium is the message” to “the message is the message.” That, I believe, is good news for newsmedia businesses, because they are in the message business.

The focus on the future should not be on the technology, or the platform, or even the integration of platforms. It needs to be on The Message. Because the message holds the value. That is what newsmedia companies sell. Earl Wilkinson ended the INMA World Congress by imploring the audience to “strive for measurable relevance.” Relevance starts with the message, and then considers how it is delivered.

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