Rant: Good Beats Great

I've read yet another article from a magazine/publisher/journalist bemoaning the state of the modern media and the rise of the internet, blogging, and amateur journalism. This time, the article is from Jason Plontin's blog and is titled How to Save Media.

Plontin's prescriptions are pretty much the same as any other media critic. They might not be as extreme as David Simon's solution to put all content behind paywalls, but Plontin's thoughts run along the same lines. Force the reader to pay for some stuff. Give some stuff away for free. Toy with this. Tinker with that. Bang on the other. Be a little bit more receptive to readers (the sons of bitches).

It reminds me of back in the days when the VCR came out. I must warn you that I've been around since Hector was a pup, so you might ask "what is this thing you call a V-C-R?" Called a video cassette recorder, it was a primitive sort of recording device that recorded televised images on a thin ribbon of material, and allowed the person who owned one to press a button and play back what he had just recorded on his television. It was truly a revolutionary device.

When the first VCRs came out, there was a "format war" between two types of machines that were incompatible. One was called 'VHS' and the other was called 'Betamax'.

Betamax was clearly the superior of the two. The picture and sound quality that Betamax could deliver was great. There were just two problems. One, Betamax was more expensive than VHS. Two, a Betamax video cassette could only recorded two hours of televised material. If you were willing to change the settings on your VCR to allow less pristine recording, you could stretch the casette storage of a VHS machine's cassette to six hours.

Comparing both models, the public made their choice, and that choice was VHS. Videophiles groaned, but people didn't need perfect sound and video - not for the extra price and inconvenience of Betamax. The public looked at both models and decided that VHS, although not perfect, was good enough for its price. After a few years, Betamax became a synonym for obsolescence and the few Betamax tapes available at the video store were confined to one lonely shelf.

Good...had beaten Great.

The above illustrates what's going on in journalism right now. We have the traditional sports media. The traditional media tells very good stories - but those stories are expensive and require an infrastructure. Furthermore, there's very little flexibility. You only get what the papers decide you should have. (As women's basketball fans, trust me, we know all about that.)

Or, you can have the new media. It's secondhand. The platform is atrocious. But the price point can't be beat. Furthermore, it's a lot more flexible and receptive to its readers that the traditional model.

And what happened? People visited various little niche blogs and specialty websites and decided, "You know what? It might not be great writing on the internet but it's good enough, it's inexpensive, and I don't have to wait my local paper to decide that they might write something about the WNBA today."

Good is beating Great. And the problem that Great faces is that Good wants to get better.

Some of what I'm writing ties in to a frequent subject of Q's, the role of "new media" in promoting the WNBA. The WNBA, disdained by traditional sports media, has had to basically build its own media structure. Granted, messageboards, blogs, and other such bailing wire methods of getting out the message don't have the prestige of traditional media, but they seem to do the job - they get the news out to the people that want to read it.

The only hope that the "Great" sports departments have of winning the battle is to convince readers that Good is really Not Good at All. It seems that the sports pages send a message by omission, so to speak. "Why are you asking about the WNBA? Don't you know that that league is on the ropes? Why don't you read some of our nice pro football coverage, huh? Why don't you read about a Great sport? Isn't that what you should really be reading about? "

I suspect that might be the source of a small part of the print media's hostility to the WNBA - they would have to stretch their resources to write about something new, and it's a lot easier to tear down the W than to build up a structure to report about it. Sports departments have had their budgets cut to the bone, and the only reporters that have survived are the ones that have built up their knowledge of the traditional "big three sports". You can't teach an old dog new tricks, particularly if the old dog doesn't want to learn them. It would simply be more convenient for reporters for the WNBA not to exist - it's one less league to write about.

It might simply be too much to ask of newspapers in this day of age. Traditional media either can't cover the WNBA, or they won't cover it, but it makes no difference in the end - the result is the same. And since the sports page doesn't cover the W, and since I can get my news on a hundred blogs, there's not much of a reason for me to purchase a newspaper at all. (My wife has a subscription to the Sunday paper, but only for the coupons.)

So it looks like Good is going to continue to win the battle against Great. Maybe the solution is not for the "great" model of traditional media to become greater by means of the same old model with a different polish and some new fixes. Maybe the solution for Great is to become Good.