For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, I recently linked to an article that I think is very important. It was written by my friend Hank Green, about the reactions to his recent interview with President Obama.
Hank, as you may know, makes amazing YouTube videos about all manners of topics, with the overarching goal of making the world a better place. This isn’t some treacly greeting-card sentiment; Hank (and his brother John, and their team of amazing young people creating videos) honestly and openly want everyone to be better people. Their motto is “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.” And they mean it.
Hank, along with YouTube creators Bethany Mota and Glozell Green, interviewed the president, asking him questions that were important to their audience. These included the government’s use of drones, net neutrality, Boko Haram, and racial tension. These questions were unflinching, unapologetic, and discussed without the manufactured “both sides” baloney so common in mainstream media.
The reaction to this by some of that same media was as predictable as it was maddening: disbelief and derision. This is what inspired Hank to write his article. I strongly urge you to read it.
Hank calls these older news sources “legacy media,” which is an interesting term. He describes how these current news media inherited their positions of popularity, as opposed to earning it; they’re not the same venues they once were. A lot of their inroads into our society, their ability to get their message out, is based on their past when things were very different.
And the trust they rely on now has, in many cases, been squandered if not cynically exploited and outright betrayed. The 24-hour news cycle is a huge factor in this, I think; that is a lot of time to fill, and nonsense loves to occupy that space. But corporate ownership is a huge part of the problem, especially when the owners are dogmatic ideologues with an agenda.
Apropos of that, one of my favorite parts of Hank’s article was his response to a tweet by Rupert Murdoch. The head of News Corp. (the right-wing company that owns Fox News) tweeted this:
Hank’s response was perfect. Perfect.
As Hank points out in his article, the average age of Fox viewers is not exactly young. Young folks in high school and college don’t get their news from Fox (or CNN or even MSNBC); they’re far more likely to get it from The Daily Show, from links on social media, and on YouTube.
It’s incredibly trite, but it’s true nonetheless: The future is online. A big chunk of the legacy media still haven’t quite figured this out. They just slap their printed or TV content online and call it good, but that’s not the way things work (or, at the least, it's not enough). And they’re starting from the wrong premise anyway. Younger folks don’t want to see five old rich white guys yelling at each other about women’s rights. They want a thoughtful take on it, from people who represent them better.
People like Hank, Mota, Green, and so many others have spent a lot of time being themselves online, and have built a huge capital of trust. That’s why their audience numbers in the many, many millions.
It’s not too late for legacy media. All they have to do is win our trust back. But trust is earned, not given, and earning that trust is hard work, something I don’t see too many in the old school doing much of. Resting on their legacy is how they got to this dying cul-de-sac in the first place.*
I have no specific solutions, no road map for legacy media to save themselves. This is new territory, and it's being mapped out as it's being discovered. Maybe we just have to wait for the old media to die off ... but that’ll take a while. They still have a lot of money and a maniacal grip on a lot of politicians.
But there’s hope; the president did speak to this new group, and he did reach their younger audience.
What I can hope for is that an entire new generation will reach their adulthood having grown up under the tutelage of this new wave of media and absorb those principles. All they need to do is don’t forget to be awesome.
I’ll leave you with this: the presidential interview. It’s really quite good.
*I’ll note that Slate started as a totally online magazine, which is one of the reasons it’s still going strong, and one of the reasons I was happy to hitch my wagon to them. They understand online culture, and don’t carry the baggage of Old Media.