The Decline of the Single Editorial Voice

Later today, Keith Olbermann will make a statement on Twitter about, presumably, the circumstances of his departure from MSNBC.  Though that’s a small thing in itself, says ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, it’s a reflection of a huge shift in media.

After citing other examples of how social media allows individual voices to flourish outside of traditional mass-media outlets, Kirkpatrick writes that

“None of these are huge news in and of themselves, but together they paint a picture of dramatic change. Change away from a past where huge audiences sat passively and consumed a small quantity of time-restricted, highly-produced streams of content, delivered through a limited number of distribution channels that were secured by conglomerates at great cost. The days in which there was just one media game in town are fading fast, pushed into history one Tweet at a time.”

In a way that was inconceivable 20 years ago, social media technologies have empowered individual voices to compete for attention at the same level as  the old mass-media channels.  In fact, those channels themselves are gradually being transformed by social media from single, unified wholes into a bundle of constantly shifting and realigning voices.

For traditional media, which still expect control, this trend is difficult to accept. The discussion last week about which department within a publishing company should “control” social media indicates how much rethinking remains to be done.

In some ways, bundling voices is not a new idea for magazines. As the word itself suggests, a magazine is a kind of container for a variety of things. But for successful magazines, there has always always been a creative tension between this inherent diversity and a need to impose on it some form of unity. Through editorial control, the best magazines found a way to blend their many constituent parts into a single, distinct voice.

But as individual voices gain the power through social media to be heard on their own, the concept of editorial control and a single editorial voice has to change. There will still be channels made up of many voices, but identity will come increasingly less from an editor and more from collaboration and common interest. The individuals whose voices make up channels will leave and rejoin more frequently, and the identity of those channels will evolve more rapidly.

Though we don’t know the full story yet, it seems likely that Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC is part of an identity crisis. Like CNN with Rick Sanchez and NPR with Juan Williams before it, MSNBC let go a prominent voice because it didn’t reflect the identity management wanted for the channel.  But somehow these efforts to build identity seem only to have diminished it.

Perhaps, in the new-media world, fighting to maintain control over identity is a loser’s strategy. Success will more likely come not from stifling individual voices, but from providing a platform and environment where they will flourish.