Friday, July 2, 2010

Old Media Never Dies

"The Strange Survival of Ink" The Economist, June 10th 2010
The Economist notes that the death of newspapers, so recently foretold, has not come to pass. A little while back, in an interesting survey on the state of Television, we learned  that it's doing just fine too.

Champions of the new media might think this impossible, a dead cat bounce, the coyote hovering in mid air for a doubletake before plunging to doom.. They forget that old media never dies, it just fades away. In the age of the plasma screen, cinemas still make steady money. In the age of iTunes, CD shops still struggle on.. Radio, the original broadcast media, still commands vast audiences, and advertising revenue.

At first glance, all of these old media should have been swept away by the New New Thing. That they remain casts doubt on similar portents of doom for Education. But look in detail and you can find a subtle logic for the persistence of old media. Newspapers cover local news nobody (much) blogs about. Television controls broadcast access to live sport, and everybody wants to watch the world cup final. Radio is easy, pattering on in the background, creating the illusion of company for solitary drivers and workers.

There is also a survival bias. We forget old media that has lost the battle. Newsreels are the only example that come to mind, cinema shorts, and Radio Dramas, slain by television. I'm too young to remember others. We also forget that the media that survive evolve. The Sun newspaper is a very different beast from it's forebears in the 17th century.

Universities too can evolve, at least those that survive. Just like TV and newspapers, they can find niches in the new age and grow into them, as Television found salvation in live broadcast sport. The danger is time. Other media operated in the private sector. The transition for newspapers will last perhaps a decade, with titles that don't get it going under. Universities, in Ireland at least, don't go bust. As essentially public sector organisations, they have a deep insurance policy, and a capacity to ignore shifting realities. Sometimes this is a strength, protecting them from the need to chase fads. But sometimes, it is a deadly weakness.


  1. I enjoyed your last two posts. Thought provoking, like the other posts I've read here.

    I suspect that universities will stagger on in some form or other but I have a notion the ambition to bring about the mass extension of higher education is over in the UK, where I'm writing from. I feel an admirable idea was badly abused, first to massage unemployment figures and then as some sort of adjunct of the economy.

    If the cost of doing a degree rises people will think very carefully about whether it is worthwhile.

    As someone from a 'non-traditional' background (in the jargon) who was a mature student just before they brought in fees, I doubt I'd consider university a realistic option if I was thinking about returning to education now. Too expensive and with awards of dubious quality.

    I'd still be intellectually curious, it's just I wouldn't see university as a place to sate that appetite.

  2. Thanks for the reading, and the comment.

    There's a few forces pulling at the cost of HE in different directions. Universities 'want' to be expensive, both as it's easy on the books, and makes them look like Harvard. On the other hand, economic growth, long term, makes things relatively cheaper. Really I need to do some more reading on costs of HE and different models (What happens in Japan? Sweden?) to form a clear view on the long term, global trend. Whether the cost rises or falls, in real terms, is a decisive issue.