Garfield: Media giants are the toaster ovens of digital age

Bob Garfield, co-host of the syndicated public radio show On the Media, compared his professional role to that of a toaster oven in a March 5 speech at the Woodrow Wilson School: “useful, but largely obsoleted by technology” in an era where every blogger can wear the hat of media critic. But Garfield added that he has company. Major media institutions like NBC, The Washington Post, and the radio giant Clear Channel are beginning to take on the same a toaster-oven quality, he said.

The digital revolution has fragmented media and trivialized the barriers to entry, Garfield said. A costly network of affiliates used to be an advantage for broadcast television channels because it kept competitors out of the business, but as the costs of production and distribution have dropped, being big has become a significant burden.

Garfield, who also writes a column for Advertising Age, pinned a large part of the blame on the disintegrating relationship between media and marketing, once the “yin and yang” that made TV and newspapers profitable.

“For more than three centuries, consumers have put up with ads as part of the deal, the quid pro quo, the unspoken contract that provided us all with free or subsidized content in exchange for having to sit through 20 years of Mr. Whipple fondling toilet paper,” he said. “To most people, all advertising is spam.”

The digital revolution has made media more inclusive, democratized, and exciting, Garfield said, but significant consequences also seem likely to follow. Elite media institutions have the ability to command the attention of government, industry, or other institutions, he said. Fragmented news sources do not have the same heft.

“While I am extremely optimistic about the kinds of journalism that we will benefit from in the digital world,” Garfield said, “I am quite nervous [about] the kind that won’t.”

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