Monday, September 13, 2004

Why Old Media Thrives on Secrecy

RatherGate has revealed an ugly truth of old media: It needs secrecy to succeed economically. It must have access to sources of information that no one else does. Secret sources are to old media what physical assets are to smokestack industries.

Media makes its living by revealing what it knows but once a story is in the public domain it ceases to be an economic asset to the organization that originally produced the story. Once an outlet publishes a story anybody in the world can reproduce it and resell it in any form.

It is the sources that go into the production of the story behind the scenes that comprise the true assets of the organization. Each organization differentiates itself in the market by having different sources. The only means of preserving the sources is to have them remain secret from the general public. If the sources become public knowledge anybody can produce the story. Future sources will not cooperate if they believe that doing so will thrust them into the public limelight. This idea is so central to old media that the law grants professional journalist the privilege of not revealing their sources in court. The law recognizes that old media will not function unless it's sources remain secret.

Secrecy is so integral to the production of news stories that several recent scandals have occurred because even the editors and publishers do not always know who all of journalist sources are.

This system only works if the consumers trust the media to honestly and accurately transmit the information from the secret sources. Once an iota of doubt about the reporting arises both the story and the organization's brand is in danger.

The internet era works against old fashion media secrecy. Many more people can ask many more questions about every story. Any potential inaccuracies are brought to light nearly instantly. The old media institutions are then required to justify their stories or risk losing the critical assumption of trust. But they often can't justify their stories without burning their sources. Bloggers have no economic interest in secrecy. They can tell stories in a perfectly transparent fashion. This gives blogs a tremendous trust advantage.

The era of secrecy and unnamed sources will soon come to an end and with it the economic advantage that old media currently holds over the blogsphere. The days of major media will soon be over. The questions is what will replace it?