This is the fourth in a series of posts about my new book, Designing Media

James Truman, December 2008

I was lucky to be able to interview James Truman in Napa Valley, not so far away from my home base, where he was staying in a visitor’s cottage on the Francis Ford Coppola estate. He sat in the window with the sun dappling through the trees outside, with Roman Coppola listening to his story.

For more than a decade James had the most influential voice in the content of all of the magazines published by Condé Nast, and from his perch he saw the influence of the street converge with the penthouse, with new titles emerging that were eclectic, integrating diversity in adventurous and exploratory ways. Eventually, as the pressures of competition and the Internet increased, they were forced to become vehicles for the needs of advertisers.

Vogue magazine; editorial content related to advertising

James expects traditional media to survive in re-purposed forms, with luxurious versions of magazines and books standing a much better chance than inexpensive texts, because when people only want information in text form, they can find it for free online. Beautiful designs to enhance the reading experience for printed books and magazines will be more important. That’s good news for the designers!

He sees a move from authority to conversation as exemplifying the change from mass to personal, with media becoming more transparent, implying that the participant can see through the medium because the tools of creation are accessible, so people no longer listen to lectures; instead, they make things themselves, evolving into a new “creator economy.” He wonders whether that gives the creators the right to run the whole curriculum, pointing out the need for a balance between democratization and a hierarchy of control. Traditional media offer a chaperoned experience, but new media mix material that is created objectively and subjectively so that it is difficult to tell the difference.

News stories on the Web seem to be becoming the equivalent of the CDOs, those weird financial instruments that brought down the banking system, where many mortgages are sliced up and put back together. You read a story and find that it has a little bit of New York Times reporting in it, perhaps a little bit of Los Angeles Times reporting, plus a little bit of gossip, and then a little bit of something that someone made up. Underneath there is a response by a blogger that seems interesting, but you don’t know if the blogger has actually been paid to write it by a big corporation or if it’s what the author really thinks.

The clash between new media and traditional media is most obvious in the different financial models, which still have a long way to go before balanced new structures emerge. Companies like Google and YouTube caught the wave early enough to gain dominant market share, leading to easy financial success from advertising revenue. Traditional media companies, particularly newspapers and magazines, face the most difficult challenges because their advertising revenue is eroding and they have large existing overhead costs. James sums it up when he says,

“There has to be a new model of advertising that can satisfy advertisers and also keep the well-known brand names afloat. Media is in a very, very interesting phase. I remember years ago, how people would say that in the future technology is going to become invisible. I even remember fashion designers who would sew microprocessors into the lapels of jackets with some unforeseen future consequence of being wired and connected. So media was announcing the disappearance of technology, but what’s happening now is that technology is announcing the disappearance of media. The word media implies something that intermediates—that mediates between an institution and the public, or an event and a reader, or whatever. That role seems to be less and less useful, and less and less needed.”

Personal Force Field Suit from Frog Design

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