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The Bias Behind Media Neutrality

Being Digital for Digital's Sake Isn't the Same as Serving an Audience

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I'm not sure quite when, but somewhere along the line the phrase "media neutrality" became synonymous with "digital bias." Nothing wrong with digital bias, really. The sustaining concept behind "When Trains Fly" is the exploration and development of new business models to replace those disrupted by digital technology. But an overly aggressive bias towards all things digital could pose more of a threat to traditional media businesses than necessary.

I never much cared for the phrase media neutrality. It implies a certain laziness, a sense that you can stick this piece of content over here and this one over there and it doesn't really matter. But as someone smart said to me (and if my deteriorating brain could remember who it was, I'd give him credit), we really should aim for "media maximization" -- letting each media platform do what it does best. The simplest example of this for a media brand such as Ad Age would be to say that digital is a better platform for breaking news and print a better vehicle for providing context.

My concern, though, is that some people are so afraid of being seen as digital Neanderthals they're reluctant to defend the ongoing value of any non-digital media platform. And we're just not there yet. While the phrase "media neutrality" may be weak, it does recognize the transfer of power from content creators to end users by saying, in effect, we will serve our audiences in the way they want to be served. Those who still find value in print should be able to get a print product, and there are print magazines, particularly some glossy lifestyle titles, that serve a role that won't be usurped by digital offerings any time soon. Same for newspapers, TV networks, radio stations, etc.

You can in part blame the pressure Wall Street puts on publicly traded media companies. In an interview with PaidContent, Gordon Crovitz of The Wall Street Journal said, "The great opportunity for Dow Jones and the Journal is how do we best transition from an old-media world to a new-media world and how do we take full advantage of digital technology and distribution."

Dick Parsons, discussing Time Warner's results, told analysts, "With respect to the publishing business, I have said and say again, we were and are engaged in an ongoing process of pruning the portfolio to make sure we are focused on the titles in the magazine space that have and can have life in the online space and we are focused on moving those brands into the online space."

Nothing wrong with either of those statements. Except a true media brand puts the mission and consumer at the center and then figures out how best to serve them, rather than putting a particular technology or distribution platform at the center. The starting point needs to be the question of the best way to serve the audience. The answer for most will be digital. But being digital only for the sake of being digital? That's not neutral, it's not a strategy, and for some it may not be right.

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