Quick, Progressives Have to Become Players in the Global Media Game Before Corporations Control the Whole Thing
As progressives gather in Minneapolis for the fourth annual National Conference for Media Reform, the fast-moving digital media marketplace should be high on their agenda. A record wave of mergers, acquisitions and significant investment from venture capitalists is raising alarms about the impact these new players will have on a long-term social and political reform agenda. Since there's no evidence these investors are interested in anything but profit, it's up to progressive organizations to become players in the global media game.
Corporate giants are on a global digital shopping spree. Google, Microsoft, and Time Warner are gobbling up leading digital media companies (the current fight between Microsoft and Google for control over troubled Yahoo is an example of this trend). Venture capitalist investment in new media start-ups, including mobile social networks and broadband video platforms, is staggering. It reflects a keen corporate awareness about how a global generation of young people now communicate and promises to have a profound influence on the future of the Internet and other digital services.
Progressives should be especially concerned about how corporate investments affect the diversity of digital ownership. The time is right for progressive organizations to develop sustainable, revenue-generating broadband news and entertainment services. This would enable media reformers, long relegated to the sidelines, to join the game and "counter-program" the mainstream informational culture. As political organizing increasingly moves online, progressive Internet TV channels and mobile social networks will be crucial tools for advocacy and constituency building. Digital media can also generate huge revenues. Income from such new ventures could help to transform the hand-to-mouth fundraising efforts that often mark our media production and activism activities.
The leading online companies and Fortune 500 advertisers are hard at work monetizing the key business model for digital media -- interactive advertising. A sophisticated apparatus that tracks our online behavior and delivers compelling and personalized multimedia marketing messages will suck consumers into an ubiquitous environment that presents us with the right ad at the right time. From mobile phones to social networks to broadband video the online "media and marketing ecosystem" will become an ever more powerful force in our lives.
Young people -- whom the industry has dubbed "digital natives" -- are squarely in the digital marketing cross-hairs. Microsoft, Viacom and major advertisers have long been engaged in well-funded research to ensure they develop deep relationships with young audiences. Marketers are well aware of the power of sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook to forge social and political identities and they are doing what they can to make sure young people are immersed in brand messages -- whether playing games, using instant messaging or writing or reading blogs. Hispanic youth are a prime target, identified as early adopters of such technologies as mobile phones.
Advertisers recognize that they and other "urban youth" can be used to promote consumption trends among other groups. The progressive movement would be making a serious error if it cedes our young people to a corporate culture that will use its tremendous resources to foster self-engagement instead of political activism.
Even with the possibility of a new, more sympathetic leadership in the White House and Congress, public policy change alone is insufficient to ensure that progressive values can survive in the global media marketplace. Even with network neutrality -- an "open" Internet -- companies in the forefront of operating the new means of communications will become dominant forces in our society. Congress won't be able to ensure that progressives control a sustainable series of digital outlets -- from broadband video channels to mobile social networks.
So the question is this: do progressive organizations have the courage to get into the game? Will they have the creativity to engage in a well-coordinated series of pilot projects and initial ventures (including expanding what has already developed online), to perfect business and ownership models that help create a diverse and socially responsible ecosystem of our own?
The business model for much of new media seamlessly integrates communications, community and entertainment, which Wall Street firm Piper Jaffray has dubbed "communitainment." Add commerce to that formula, in the form of ads and transaction fees, and you have the basic business model for most of digital media. Last year, more than $21 billion was spent in the United States on Internet-related ads. By 2011, online advertising will overtake newspapers as the leading recipient of US marketing dollars. Eventually, most advertising will be interactive, targeting us while we are on our computers, using mobile phones or even watching digitally connected televisions. Not surprisingly, Google now calls its YouTube a "next-generation advertising platform."
Venture capitalists are investing in many new media start-ups, wagering that by gaining "first-mover" advantage they will strike digital gold. But such investments should also trigger debate within the media reform community about the fate of public interest and community media. Consider Outside.In, which describes itself as "the web's leading platform for neighborhood news and conversation," covering 11,860 towns and neighborhoods in the United States. This for-profit start-up has been backed by venture heavy hitters, including Union Square Ventures. This raises the question of whether community media in the digital era -- as well as such key sectors involving online TV, video search, mobile services, social networks -- will be operated solely as private commercial entities.
A Progressive Media Action Plan
It's time to develop a progressive digital media action plan, creating a system of broadband video networks, mobile social networks, buying-recommendation services and other new media properties committed and managed on behalf of social justice. Some may be for-profit, others a mix of nonprofit and revenue generation. The opportunity to bypass the media gatekeepers is before us, with support from this and future generations of youth accustomed to getting their news and culture online -- not from the media mainstream. An array of local and national Internet TV channels, including those operated by women and people of color, could provide the compelling content that will help drive the political debates (or at least keep them more honest!), and also illustrate the power of the creative imagination when not bound to protecting the status quo.
To do so will require expanding the definition of media reform, moving beyond public policy to engage in market-oriented strategies. Progressives have experienced great success with digital media -- including MoveOn.org's campaign for privacy rights on Facebook and its clever political quiz on the difference between Bush and John Mccain. Another good example is Web-based political organizing around the Jena 6 protests. But the steady consolidation of control online (including the cable and phone broadband access giants), and the growing power of interactive advertising as the Internet's business model, will have a profound impact on the evolution of our media system.
While the Internet and other emerging digital media will remain a source of diverse content, how well they promote the ideas and goals of progressives in the long-term will be greatly influenced by the commercial marketplace. Progressives can claim a great victory in the Net Neutrality debate. But we shouldn't rest on laurels and assume that our ideas and the online audience they can muster today will be there tomorrow.
US media history in the twentieth century illustrated how radio, broadcast television and cable were media with great promise, but once advertising took hold their public interest potential was soon scuttled. A hallmark of our new digital media landscape will be the flourishing of advertising-driven services; now practically everyone can create an ad for online or even for television. But whether this ad-supported system currently focused on generating corporate or individual wealth will help provide the resources to support long-term reform efforts will largely depend on our willingness to be progressive entrepreneurs.