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Thursday, August 18, 2005 | The Voice of San Diego is a vivid example of what is wrong with the media today.

It is a matter of contrast. Voice is doing everything right, while most of the media is doing a lot wrong.

The issue is money. Particularly in news media, both print and broadcast, publishers are constantly being pressed to cut corners because of rising costs and declining revenues.

Traditional broadcast, as it has been practiced since the printing press enabled mass newspaper distribution in the 15th century, is a very, very expensive business, and is also very, very inefficient. Because of the media business model – the power of small numbers – broadcast media is and always will be a very lucrative business, but not so lucrative that rising expenses can be ignored. The results are a reduction in quality product and a trend toward inflated, or sensationalized, product. Neither of these serve well either the media or the public, particularly when quality of media has become a national controversy.

In traditional broadcast, both print and media, information is collected and processed at a single point, then distributed to a general audience. The technology required is enormously expensive, and it reaches only a small percentage of the general audience. Even in prime time, last week’s top-rated television show received a rating of less than 10, meaning 90 percent of all television households were not reached by this very expensive product.

Ratings for broadcast evening news programs – ABC, CBS and NBC – are in the 5-6 range and translate, for each network, into a viewership of roughly 8 million, in a potential audience of 200-plus million.

The new, digital, Internet-based media turns the direction of information around 180 degrees. Where in traditional broadcast information goes out to an audience, in Web media (which I call “Incast”), the audience comes in to the information, exactly as you have done as you read this.

Voice is one of the few existing “local” news organizations that publishes exclusively online, and as such, it is attracting national attention. (Actually, there is no “local” news anymore; you can read Voice as easily in upstate Maine as you can in Del Mar or Spring Valley.) In traditional broadcast, The San Diego Union-Tribune must support a huge physical plant, newsprint prices, a truck fleet and fleet maintenance, and a door-to-door distribution system to get the news to your sidewalk.

At Voice, the news is simply files in a computer. The Internet’s price structure permits anyone with something to say (such as myself) and $40 a month to become a global publisher. What can Voice do with all that saved production money? What could the U-T do? What could ABC, CBS and NBC do? Pour it into product. I tell my journalism students that they are sitting on a gold mine. When Incast becomes standard, with all that money for product, there will be a huge demand for their talents.

In spite of their bottom-line fears, all media publishers have established and maintain a strong Incast presence, because to do so is dirt-cheap. Publishers recognize the phenomenal potential of the Incast business model, which essentially creates a one-to-one relationship (the advertiser’s dream) between the product and the consumer. Newspapers do this even though it means they must routinely scoop their own high-priced daily broadcast product.

Eventually, all media will be Incast, nothing more than files in a computer accessible globally at any time of the day or night.

Or maybe not.

The highway to Incast is so clear, wide-open and inviting that you think the journey would be easy. In fact it is cluttered with companies seeing the opportunity to make a buck, or a lot of bucks, which is what always happens with technology revolutions.

The same thing happened with television in the 1940s. At one point, regulations called for a consumer to have one set for black-and-white, and a separate set for color. With videotape in the 1960s and ’70s, it was going to be Beta or VCR. With music cassettes, it looked for awhile we were doomed to eight-track.

On the Incast highway, we run into business deals such as TiVo, HiDef and DVR, that actually get in the way of progress toward the pure and simple Incast business solution, because they try to turn broadcast into Incast. The biggest boondoggle of all was America Online, which in terms of accessing and using the Internet, had no reason to exist, but devised a powerful subscription business model based on consumer ignorance.

There are others on the highway who have very vested and expensive interests in keeping things done the old way, particularly in the television realm. Eventually, economics will force the success of Incast, at which time print and television will merge to create a new media about which we still only can dream. Someday when you are watching it, though, remember Voice of San Diego. You saw pure Incast here first.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com.

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