As media finally converge, it’s coming down to this

By Steve Robinson

In the next few years and using a new technology that’s just over the horizon, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio will merge with the largely unsalaried varieties of journalism — social networking and the blogosphere — to form a new delivery system that will profoundly change the way people receive and consume news, information and other forms of content.

Why is this prediction any more reliable than the “convergence” hype that began appearing in the mid-1990s but never materialized? Think, for example, of Steve Case’s dream to merge AOL with Time Warner’s print titles to create new levels of journalistic and broadcast synergy that would change the world. It never really happened, did it?

This time around, however, the scene has undergone at least a few key developments that, together, will bring about the convergence of media that has eluded us so far. The situation today is different in a number of ways:

  • In 2000, the blogosphere was only beginning to develop. The term itself didn’t come into existence until September 1999 and was not widely used until 2002. Definition from Wikipedia: “The blogosphere is made up of all blogs and their interconnections. The term implies that blogs exist together as a connected community (or as a collection of connected communities) or as a social network in which everyday authors can publish their opinions.” The key phrase in that last sentence is : “everyday authors.”
  • High-speed and wireless Internet connections were not as widespread then as they are now. The first commercial uses of Wi-Fi were just a decade ago. It was still virtually unknown in 2000 and not widespread until several years later.
  • In 2000 the smartphone industry was only just getting off the ground. Today, we see the astounding success of Apple’s iPhone and other devices such as the Blackberry. What is a smart phone in general terms? It’s a portable computer, permanently connected to the Internet. The notion of being permanently connected to the Internet is an essential underpinning of the future as outlined here. Now, fast forward to some day next year, when tea-leaf-readers expect Apple to release its tablet computer: Writing about the Apple tablet (and devices that might imitate it) in Newsweek this fall, Daniel Lyons says, “These powerful devices with constant Internet access will enable us (and force us) to rethink media. What is a newspaper? What is a book? What is a movie? What is entertainment?” I recommend Lyons’ article because it points the way to the future (“The Hype Is Right,” Newsweek, Oct. 26, 2009.)

So what will journalism and, for that matter, all content look like in five years and how will it be delivered?

It will all come together on devices resembling the rumored iTablet (a term used by writers like Lyons but rarely, if ever, by Apple). These devices, connected full-time to the Internet, will receive audio, video, movies and every flavor of text, including newspapers, books, magazines, blogs, e-mails and Web content, while doing thousands of other handy things that laptops and smartphones do. (By that time, Amazon’s Kindle and the other e-book readers will be dead ducks if they’re still one-trick ducks.)

There will be no more “radio,” just audio; no more “TV,” just video. There will be no more newspapers, magazines or books — they become words on a screen.

To be sure, this revolution won’t happen overnight, but I predict this new device will become a massively disruptive technology, and we would be wise to pay attention.

What does this mean for public broadcasting? Public radio and TV stations that routinely develop and produce content will do well because these “convergence devices” will have a bottomless appetite for content: While the iPhone now has more than 100,000 applications available, just two years after introduction, I predict the iTablet will have 1 million applications and programs available within 18 months of introduction.

On the other hand, stations that use their transmitters mainly to rebroadcast content produced by others — all of which will be available on demand, sooner or later — are going to have a harder time.

Some stations, especially joint licensees such as Window to the World Communications Inc. (WFMT and WTTW), where I work, and Cleveland’s ideastream (WCPN and WVIZ), have already seen the future and try to share content among their radio, TV and Web platforms.

But even the most productive stations won’t be able to congratulate themselves for “repurposing” a TV story for radio. In fact, it would be a good idea to ban the word “repurpose” forever, because in five years many of the programs and streams we create will appear on one device — literally reaching us through one almost indivisible medium. After years of aspiring to create multimedia, we now have the opportunity to produce for the unimedium.

Of course, public broadcasting stations won’t be the only ones racing to create programs and applications for these new devices. Check out the mockup of a tablet version of Sports Illustrated by Time Inc. and its web partner, The Wonderfactory (vimeo.com/7939946).

Last month the New York Times reported, on its front page (“Cellphone Apps Challenge the Rise of E-Readers,” Times, Nov. 17, 2009), that e-books on the multipurpose iPhone are gaining wider acceptance than on the single-purpose Kindle.

“Publishers are now rushing to develop new forms of books to cater to readers who will see them on smartphones — books that will not work on today’s stand-alone e-readers,” write Motoko Rich and Brad Stone in the Times. “When Nick Cave, the rock musician, wrote his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, he and his British publisher, Canongate, worked with a multimedia company to develop an app for the iPhone that incorporated not just the text but also videos, music composed by Mr. Cave and audio of the author reading the book.”

The second sentence is the key: public broadcasters should develop programs specifically designed to work not only on today’s smartphones but also with an eye toward eventually releasing them on devices like the iTablet described above.

The iPhone release of Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro is not only a landmark, it’s a fascinating production and is a precursor of what books will look like in the future.

Remember the Daily Prophet, the wizards’ newspaper in the Harry Potter stories, which offered instant interaction with newsmakers and real-time video embedded in the articles? Even for us muggles, that’s going to be standard fare from here on out.

Some may think I have stars in my eyes and that the convergence, if it happens at all, is years away.

Maybe so. But the day after I sent a version of this article to my colleagues at WFMT and WTTW, Condé Nast announced that they have started converting 18 of their magazine titles for publication on the still-to-be-announced Apple iTablet, or whatever one wants to call it. A Web search on the words “Condé Nast Apple” will generate dozens of articles about Condé Nast’s announcement.

As reports have pointed out, the future is clear enough to publishers that some are preparing to publish in an Adobe file format on the expected color touchscreens within a year or two.

To prepare for the advent of these new devices, I asked myself how we should go about producing our proposed WFMT Radio Network series of six one-hour programs about the Bach Cello Suites—featuring a well-known cellist yet to be announced.

The answer, in part, is that we’ll record all of the cellist’s interviews, demonstrations and complete performances on video; prepare the score of each suite to scroll on the screen as an option while the piece is being played; produce features from the audio/video; and create as much valuable and pertinent additional material about the music and its composer as possible, including pictures and translations of numerous letters and other documents relating to Bach’s life. This will put us in a good position to not only syndicate a radio series but also sell an enhanced version for new convergence devices. We’ll also build in a social networking component to let users interact.

Classical music, of course, is just a tiny niche in the spectrum of news, information, culture, science and so many other fields of interest, but the beauty of the new digital universe in which we live is that it suddenly makes economically viable digital products out of brilliant but esoteric achievements such as the Bach Cello Suites. And if, as I predict, these new devices are able to accommodate millions of programs and applications, this will open up untold new creative and marketing horizons for all of us.

The race is on.

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