Sunday, August 1, 2010

We are not their customers


In 1996 I read James Fallows’ Why Americans Hate the Media. It was one of those experiences that alters where you stand as you look at something. Since you are standing in a different place, what you are looking at looks different. It’s what we mean, I guess, when someone has said something thoughtful and true and you say, “Well, that gives me a different perspective on the matter."

I never saw The Media quite the same way again.

It didn’t instantly transport me to the view I have of it now, but it started the process of asking questions that I hadn’t even known were questions before. And it started a fascination with the question of how do we know what we think we know? How close is what we think we know to reality?

I should add that when I read it I was teaching a class in critical thinking. And sometime not long after I reread Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, written in 1957.

I think a lot of things about the media these days, but all of what I think about it is shaped by what I think is a fundamental fact that’s often missed - we are not their customers.

So many discussions of the media about how frustrating, infuriating, outmoded, misleading, shallow, etc it is – and why we hate it - end up with someone saying, well, if they can’t deliver what their customers want, we’ll stop buying.

Note the “we.” And that’s the problem. We are not their customers.

The customers of a business are the ones who literally buy the product, who hand over money for a good or a service. We may hand over fifty cents for a newspaper or a few dollars for a magazine, but any newspaper or magazine publisher will tell you that the income from subscriptions and newstands won’t keep the lights on. And we get radio and TV news for free. We may pay a cable bill, but Time Warner or Comcast aren’t forking over millions of dollars to keep NBC or Fox News in business.

Who are their customers, who pays them, for what service?

Advertisers. Other businesses, who enlist their help to recruit customers for their business.

So what is The Media selling?

Not the Nightly News, or Morning Joe, or American Idol. They’re selling eyeballs (print, TV) or ears (radio), which is shorthand for our attention.

They’re selling us. To their advertisers.

Consider a commercial fisherman, trawling for cod or tuna. The fish are not their customers. The wholesalers who buy their catch are their customers.

We are the fish. The newspaper and magazine stories, the TV and radio programs are the bait, not the product. Our attention is the product, what is being sold.

If mass media is in trouble now, if it’s not selling what their customers (advertisers) want to buy, it’s because more and more of us fish are not finding the bait as tasty as we used to. Do we really want to demand that they provide better bait? Or do we start to ask ourselves if we want to be sold?

[posted on 8/1/10]