The False New/Old Media Dichotomy: Why we need both traditional and social media

This article was written by the author in 2011. It may be even more revelant today with the advent of "fake news" and the pinnacle of distrust of mainstream media.

There's a certain perception out there: social media and traditional media are in the midst of a battle that could decide the livelihood of an entire industry. While traditional media outlets struggle with falling circulation numbers, advertising revenue, and ratings, social media continues to grow at an exponential pace.

Many have inexplicably linked these two trends. It's become a zero-sum game and one medium must fail for the other to succeed. And many adherents of social media say good riddance, that traditional media is increasingly outdated and unnecessary. That influential users on social media and individual bloggers can do the job traditionally done by big media. That the free market has spoken, and it likes this new media more than the old media. This blog post title exemplifies this perspective: "You Can't Charge For Something That Doesn't Provide Value." Thus, thee revenue-driven traditional media model is doomed to a future of irrelevancy and eventual failure.

Is this really the case? Are the two trends explicitly correlated? It appears that people are forgetting another important difference between social media and traditional media: values. But we must recognize that both old and new media have the same goal: to provide information.

Why can we only have one or the other? Can't we have both?

Why we like social media

Without a doubt, we've embraced social media. The numbers prove it: over 550 million global users on Facebook, 175 million users on Twitter. Social media has changed the media landscape tremendously.

There's a myriad of reasons that social media has become so popular. Instead of just being just consumers of information; you or I can have a part in the conversation or even be the conversation. We love how we literally have a trove of information at our fingertips through our mobile devices or tablets. We want to know things now; we don't want to wait until tomorrow morning's paper to find out what's going on. That's possible in this new digital age.

We love the fact that with social media, we can share our views by tweeting a message, updating our Facebook status, or commenting on message boards. We love that we can see and read information from other people (especially our friends and people we trust) and the ability to converse quickly with others. The conciseness of social media means we can get the main facts without being buried in details.

Last, but certainly, not least, while cable and satellite television and newspapers and magazines require paid subscriptions, social media has no monetary cost. Signing up for Twitter or Facebook (after you paid for a mobile data plan or internet service, of course) costs absolutely nothing.

Social media is here to stay. The best newspaper or television program in the world isn't going to kill Twitter. There's not a traditional media company in the world foolhardy enough to think that.

How We’re Still Using Traditional Media

The decline of the newspaper is well-documented. U.S. newspaper circulation has hit its lowest level in seven decades. In 2009, 105 newspapers shut down. Advertising revenue, long the cash cow for newspapers, has dropped precipitously.

Maybe you aren’t like me who still subscribes to a daily newspaper, but we’re all still using traditional media. Some point to the proliferation of blogs as a sign that the influence of newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasts are dropping. But a Pew Research Center study says that an astounding 99% of links on blogs came from the websites of newspapers and broadcast networks.

It's not just blogs that rely on traditional media. In the academic paper "Trends in Social Media: Persistence and Decay," researchers studied what factors caused the formation and persistence of trends on Twitter. They found it was not "the most prolific tweeters or those with most followers" that were creating popular trending topics. Instead, they found that "content that trended was largely news from traditional media sources, which are then amplified by repeated retweets on Twitter to generate trends." Social media may be the preferred method to share news, but the content they're sharing was created by traditional media.

Want more proof that consumers still crave quality content? The New York Times instituted a paywall to their website, in which after a certain amount of articles, a user would be charged a nominal fee for additional access. Did users flock away? No. In fact, in the first three months, over 281,000 users signed up as digital subscribers, proving that if quality content is there, the readers will come.

Why do we use traditional media sources? Because we still cherish the values that traditional media outlets have championed for years, values such as accuracy, credibility, fairness and balance. We might like following a certain Twitter account or reading a particular blog, but when we want quality content, we’re going to the traditional sources. When you’re debating a political or sports argument, would you rather cite a well-respected author or reporter, or the blog? Think of the last academic page you wrote. Did you quote or cite a newspaper article or publication? Or was quoting some stranger on Twitter sufficient?

Newspapers and television news stations for years have sent field reporters and correspondents to the most dangerous places on earth. Without the income, social media simply doesn't have the budget, access, or willingness to report on these stories. Do we have a blogger who’s willing to go into the battle zones of Afghanistan or able to travel to Africa to report on civil war or famine?

As Atlantic writer Megan McArdle points out, the reason why traditional media is hurting isn't social media or an "excess supply" of (free) content. Instead, insufficient advertising demand has hurt the industry. Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review points out that a transition from print to all-digital would shed 60% of costs, but also 90% of advertising revenue. Advertising opportunities have always been the bread and butter of old media, and companies have not yet found ways to replace that revenue stream. This is the real problem of traditional media; the public's appetite for high-quality content has never changed.

The False Choice: Why we need and want both

Do we have to choose between the traditional values of old media and the revolutionary values of new media? Can’t we have quality, accurate, credible content that can be shared quickly and discussed openly?

Obviously, there’s a balance involved; great content can’t come instantly, and breaking news on the social media networks isn’t always written by vetted Pulitizer-prize winners. But it’s nice to have both: the instant and accessible news update and then the more detailed, more-nuanced report and analysis later. We're using traditional media as the news feeder and social media as the amplifier.

Many companies have realized the need to address both mediums as well. Practically every major media outlet has its own Twitter and Facebook page. They’ve hired their own bloggers and have teams dedicated solely to the social media dealings of the company. As consumers shift from their priorities a little, so must media outlets. Many of those outlets already have, and they have reaped the benefits.

But when it all comes down to it, we want the best of both worlds. We’re still reading the same columns, the same features. But just because we’re reading that Rolling Stone article on our iPad and not a magazine from the newsstand doesn’t mean the death of traditional media. We need to stop looking at media on a traditional/social continuum and define media by its quality and source rather than what device we’re using.


We really shouldn’t be having the new media versus old media argument anymore. It’s abundantly clear that we’ve embraced the new values of social media, but in no way have we lost our desire for the values of old media. There’s no reason that the two sets of values can’t coexist.

As time goes on, "old" media will continue to be more social and continue to co-opt the values of social media. Conversely, I'm also predicting that social media will co-opt the values of old media. The lines of "new" and "old" media will continue to be blurred, but traditional media values will never go away.

We need to remember that goal of media companies is to report news, not print papers. Music isn't dead because people started buying MP3s instead of CDs.

Quality, accuracy, timeliness, conversation, interaction, credibility:  we have decided we want it all. People just want their information. It's in everyone's best interests to have more than one option.

In 2005, Chris Dizon earned degrees in Political Science and Journalism/Mass Communication at Arizona State University.