Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Now is a Great Time to Be a Media Maker

This may be the best time in history to make media. I’ll explain why, but first a personal story. It’s relevant – I promise.

Santa Cruz, 1991-1995. I worked for a few different newspapers, but the one closest to my heart was The Fish Rap Live. I started out there as the Photo Editor. By the next year, I was the Editor in Chief.

The Fish Rap was a free newspaper. We published twice a month throughout the school year. It was staffed by students, some in the journalism program, some not. We were the weirdos, the wannabe Hunter S. Thompsons, the freaks too strange for the mainstream college newspaper.

Every other weekend we did a production binge, usually in my apartment with plenty of beer and cigarettes, and we put together the newspaper using computers that would be laughably quaint today. I drove the flats to the press in San Jose over highway 17, a twisty 2-lane mountain pass, in a VW Bug that was older than I was. A couple days later, I drove back and filled that old car with thousands of copies, lugged them over 17 and back to Santa Cruz, where we distributed them by hand to students on campus and around town.

The Fish Rap was ad-supported, which meant that if we got a lot of ads, we could print lots of pages. If not, we couldn’t. I never saw myself as an ad salesman, but knowing that you have to cut stories if you can’t afford to print them is great incentive. I found myself hustling to get the paper out.

At our weekly editorial meetings, we sat in a room together and fretted. If only there was a way to sell more ads, so we could print more copies, so we could reach more people. This was 1993. Two years later, the web exploded.

The end product of all that work by all those people? A few thousand copies of a free paper, scattered around a small town, every other week for a few years, and now squirreled away in my basement. As far as I know, the Fish Rap is still publishing.

Flash forward to today and here’s what we have:

  1. A worldwide network of computers that allow almost anyone to access almost anything immediately, complete with video, sound, and images.
  2. Ad networks that let us earn income with the insertion of a single line of code.
  3. Social networking tools (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr) where you can grow a following that easily outnumbers the readership of a small newspaper.
  4. Print on demand tools like MagCloud that allow you to make printed media at no cost to the publisher.
  5. Online buying and selling tools like PayPal that allow you to charge for things at minimal cost, and an online audience comfortable with buying online.
  6. A new generation of readers and writers. There have never been more literate people on this planet than there are right now.

The distance we’ve come in the decade and a half since I was driving newspapers over highway 17 in a VW Bug is astonishing. I look at the tools available to media makers today and can hardly imagine a more ideal environment. So why is it that all we hear about the media industry is doom?

The media dinosaurs point at a few scapegoats.

  1. Craigslist killed the classified ad business.
    The business of selling classified ads in print was hurt by the internet’s better/cheaper/faster distribution mechanism, true, but that’s not Craig Newmark’s fault. (In fact, one could hardly hope for a better advocate than Craig. His devotion to keeping his site community-centric, turning down many buyout offers, and using his accidental prominence to promote Net Neutrality, is a service to everyone with a net connection.) Newspaper websites could have easily used the same online tools to maintain their classified ad business, but they didn’t. That’s on them. (Aside: Newspapers could absolutely reclaim this domain if they really tried. Craig’s List has serious problems and is still not in many areas. But it’s easier to point and cry than to honestly compete.)
  2. People get it for free on the internet.
    Yes, there’s this great online distribution mechanism that’s better at moving stories around than ink on paper. But people do not get it for free on the internet. People are paying for computers and internet connections. Besides, the internet did not invent free media. The Fish Rap was free, too, just like commercial television. The internet did not create free media, it just brought it to more people. If your business model depends on limiting choice, you deserve to fail.
  3. People don’t read anymore!
    Factually untrue. People read more than ever. What do you think we’re all doing all day on computers?
  4. The ad market is dying.
    The ad market has always waxed and waned in the changing winds of the economy. It’s hard to find paying advertisers now, and it was hard in the early 90s in Santa Cruz. The difference is that now, all these networked tools make it easier than ever to find advertisers and take their money. If you’re not using those tools, that’s on you. The network also makes the effectiveness of advertising much more measurable. That means media companies cannot lie to advertisers about what they’re buying. I think that’s good, too. If your business depends on bullshitting the people who are paying for it, you deserve to fail.
  5. The death of newspapers means the death of the newsroom.
    Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean the death of news. It just means that news will be produced in ways that were unfathomable even a few years ago. It will no longer be controlled by a few key players in a top-down way. It will be produced by legions of amateurs and semi-professionals in a bottom-up way. If you think that’s a nightmare, ask yourself: Is it a nightmare because the product is provably worse, or because it’s just not what you’re used to? Plenty of bad things happened because of the consolidation of traditional media (sitting on the Abu Ghraib story for months, Jason Blair, etc), and plenty of good media has been generated by crowds (Wikipedia). Maybe it’s time for the consolidated newsroom to die.

Traditional media companies had a monopoly on information for a few hundred years, and they got used to being in charge. And when the net came along, they ignored it because it wasn’t How Things Were Done. So the net did what it does: It identified the blockage as damage and routed around it.

The media companies clamoring about the death of print are not really worried that we’ll live in a world where there’ll be no more ink on paper. That will not happen until e-ink devices (like Sony’s ebook readers and Amazon’s Kindle) become as cheap and disposable as paper, and I’m not sure that will ever really happen. Ink on paper is still valuable, because it’s really good at what it does. But what it does is changing. We no longer print historical weather tables on paper. Maybe the news is just better distributed digitally. And, if so, what’s really wrong with that?

The real reason traditional media companies are freaked is because they’re losing control. They’ve dropped the leash and the dogs are running wild. Now they’re sitting around with their arms folded saying, “They’ll be back when they realize they need us.”

Sorry, guys. We don’t need you. You can join the pack and run with us if you like, but the leashes will never be back.

There has never been a better time to be making media. There are more tools to help than ever. There are more media consumers and media producers than ever. The world is more literate and media savvy than it’s ever been.

If media companies are suffering, they only have themselves to blame.


Other smart people thinking about this stuff: Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, and Scott Rosenberg.

I’m serious: Start your own damn magazine. It’s easy. Make something.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.