Fast Forward: Digital Transition

It's been a while since I've made a genuine confession in these pages about the true nature of journalists in general - and editors of industry magazines in particular. Here it is: We're not infallible. Other than some fairly rudimentary editing and writing skills, we're just like you.

What sets us apart, ultimately, is that we have the hubris to believe that we are fair and knowledgeable arbiters of the information you should consider when ordering your world. We filter information about trends, insights and news that is likely to affect your life - or business - and we package it into little dispatches: words, pictures, stories and magazines like this one. What we are not are seers, visionaries, soothsayers or futurists, even though we may sometimes act that way. That often seems the case when we cover the future - or I should say, how something in the future will fundamentally change the way we live or work. Lately, that's what I've been thinking about regarding the way the media industry has been covering the implications of the U.S. transition to a digital broadcast spectrum.

As I note in a sidebar to this month's cover story, it reminds me of how the media covered the lead up to the so-called y2k computer threat on Jan. 1, 2000. In the end, we may never know how much the media hyped a story about something that never manifested (a systemic failure of our computer systems), or how much the vigilance of that coverage helped us prepare for and avoid it. In the end, I suspect it was a little bit of both.

Don't get me wrong, the shift to digital broadcast spectrum a year from now is not without potentially huge consequences. Even though it is likely to impact only a minority of u.s. television homes - something less than 15 percent still rely on analog broadcast signals - it has the potential to further dislocate an already dwindling broadcast industry infrastructure, at a time when people seem to be racing toward the narrowcast - indeed microcast - model of digital media. That obviously has huge implications for our business. It also has significant implications for our society.

I've thought that ever since the early 1980s when my cousin Greg Weiss, then an engineering major, explained to me what digital media was and how it would ultimately revolutionize the way we distribute, receive and consume media content. It took a couple of decades longer than I expected, but ultimately Greg and his engineering professors were right. As media becomes digital, Greg told me back then, the control would shift from distributors and producers to consumers, and they would ultimately render their media content - on-demand - on the platform, at the time, and in the place of their choice.

As I waited for this revolution to occur, I figured it would mainly impact the kind of electronic media that could easily be converted from analog surrogates like vinyl, film or electromagnetic tape - things like movies, music and television. What I had not anticipated was how profoundly it would also impact the kind of media that I assumed would remain in analog form: printed newspapers, magazines, directories and books. Today, I must confess, I no longer read daily newspapers - not in print, anyway. It's the rare luxury when I kick back with the print edition of The New York Times.

While there still is some content I prefer to receive in print - most book-form literature, and literary magazines like the New Yorker or visual ones like National Geographic - I find myself consuming increasing amounts of their content online. In fact, it was just the other day when I opened the mail to the pleasant surprise of finding out that I had landed on The Atlantic's comp list. It's a great magazine, and getting it for free was a good enough reason for me to devote some time to it. Amazingly, that was not true for anyone else in my office. The Atlantic team inadvertently sent me two copies of their most recent issue, and I literally could not give it away to any of my colleagues, one of whom simply said, "I don't have time to read." That, of course, is the subject of another column, and probably one you won't read in The Atlantic.

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