Are all media created equal?
While the "official" definition of media may be pretty clear (media is generally defined as "tools that store and deliver information or data"), it's obvious that even without engaging in subtle semantic distinctions, the definition can extend to a variety of communications phenomena.
In what way? Consider: For marketers, media are the places where they run ads that will be seen by their target audience. For the public, media are major brands (NBC, CNN, The New York Times) that provide news and entertainment over the air or in print. For Web surfers, media can also mean Internet destinations that deliver information, entertainment or opinions produced by their peers.
Strictly speaking, these three different views aren't contradictory. But they do offer a look behind the recent confusion over what used to be a clearly understood and agreed upon term. That is, until the emergence of blogs and social networks turned the media world upside down. Now the lines of distinction are blurred, resulting in the question: Are all media really equal? More and more often, it's a question of perception.
What factors help shape our perceptions of what "real" media are?
- A clear editorial mission, usually aimed at a particular niche audience or political position.
- The ability to produce original content sufficient to keep the property alive and interesting to the audience.
- Responsibility for the quality and value of the content delivered, as well as adherence to a professional code of ethics.
- The ability to ensure a level of distribution and visibility congruent with what the public expects of media: presence on newsstands, on the street, in a cable package, on the air, or in a Web news aggregator.
- Regular or continuous delivery of "hot" information, as defined by the distribution channel and the media type.
A media property that exhibits most or all of these features will have a strong brand identity. This reality check also provides a way to rationalize what might otherwise be gut feelings (that the Metro street paper, a music video channel or Yahoo are somehow less fully fledged media outlets than, say, The New York Times or nbc or the Huffington Post).
The advent of social media made it possible for ordinary people to publish their opinions as easily as an official op-ed contributor could. At first, it was bloggers on one side, with card-carrying reporters on the other. But what is interesting now, in these "middle ages" of media, is the mix; on the nytimes.com, bloggers and readers opine alongside journalists, although each plays a different role. A lot of the content that finds its way onto the Web property would never have been considered "Fit to Print" by America's traditional newspaper of record. The result is a media hybrid, perhaps, but it's a rich and more relevant media mix.
Traditional media, however, still hold a very important trump card: their legitimacy, their credibility, their code of ethics and professional standards for verifying information and sources. Those values still have currency not only with the public, but with advertisers. Marketers know that their message will have a lot more impact on a traditional media site than on my mechanic's blog.