Brave new media world

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Monday's merger acquisition of Time Warner by America Online (AOL) is a clear indicator that, as we enter the 21st century, "new media" companies - which are providing news and information through all the avenues of the digital environment -are now calling the shots.

If the merger is completed, AOL will control 55 percent of the stock. That means an online company that most people had never heard of 10 years ago now will control many of the oldest and most widely known news media identities, including Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, and CNN (not to mention Time Warner's movie and music brands).

There has been a lot of talk about what this deal means for "you and me," and the issue that the media has chosen to focus on is the broadband one: high-speed Internet access for the home user, how it's done, and who gets there first.

While it is true this union will allow AOL to move toward its goal of creating a broadband network for users, the real long-term value for AOL is the incredible volume of content that comes with Time Warner.

So why does content mean more than broadband access? Simple. We're not that far from the day when all Internet access will be free. Currently companies such as Excite@Home and others are offering free dial-up access in return for the chance to expose customers to ads. Other companies are toying with offering free broadband too. There's no doubt that Steve Case, who has turned AOL into a media giant, knows that the days when people will pay for access to AOL are numbered.

What ultimately will matter is what is coming across that broadband pipe into people's homes, not just who owns that pipe. And that means some dramatic changes for today's news media.

In the future, differences between newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet will blur, and we won't be able to recognize these old media identities the way we do now.

Currently, a newspaper is a newspaper and a TV station is a TV station. But as more and more of these huge new-media old-media mergers occur (and they will), the new companies created by these deals will see themselves first and foremost as information providers (instead of newspaper companies) with a variety of distribution channels to get that information into the hands of their customers.

Ultimately, these media will be seen more as methods of distribution than unique identities, because the method of delivery won't be as important as the actual content they carry. With new media calling more of the shots, we can expect this trend to accelerate.

If you want to know how this new-media old-media marriage will work now and in the future, it's instructive to look at MSNBC, currently the top cable TV news channel and the most popular news site on the World Wide Web.

MSNBC succeeded because Microsoft had the money and the technology and NBC had the content. Relentlessly cross-promoting, MSNBC and NBC repackage the content created by their reporters, producers, artists, and production teams, and use it in various "distribution" channels. Tom Brokaw will tell viewers to go to the MSNBC Web site to find more information about a big story, while MSNBC's Web site is featuring a video clip of a Brokaw report on the same story.

And as more new-media companies snap up old-media companies, the pressure on old-media providers to join the Digital Age will intensify. This is particularly true for newspapers, which once thought of the Internet as a way for them to recapture declining audiences but now face the possibility of being left behind by another media revolution. Don't be surprised if well-known newspaper chains join the rush to merge with these new-media giants to seize the economic opportunities of such a pairing.

While the AOL-Time Warner merger does mean more news for consumers, it's not all good news. Most important, it increases the concentration of media ownership in this country. While mega-mergers lead to more and more outlets for information, they lead to fewer and fewer providers - like a lot of people yelling at you, all saying the same thing. Not a healthy stimulus for democracy.

And there is a real danger that the purpose of news media - the creation of an informed citizenry necessary for the functioning of a healthy democracy - will be endangered by corporate thinking that tends to view new media as a way to sell more pizza via your TV or computer - a chilling example of that old newsroom joke that stories are just the filler around the ads.

Still, after Monday, it's a new age. When I heard about the merger, I thought of my dad, who worked for years bringing cable TV to Canada. Back in 1970, he told me that the day would come when people would get their newspapers and magazines over their TVs. I told him he had rocks in his head. No doubt he would have that "I told you so" look on his face if he were around to see this new-media world that, in his own small way, he helped build.

*Tom Regan is associate editor of the Monitor's online edition, csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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