Halcyon Days

If Richard Nixon is history, then Eddie Haskell is nostalgia. With history, we factor in the complexity and context in which things take place, seeing the bad and good through the tempered eye of perspective. Nostalgia filters reality through a soft-focus lens with blemishes retouched, so that even our villains are charming, if disingenuously so.

To further the analogy, Hunter S. Thompson was journalism. With a life almost too vivid to be true, Thompson put himself in every story, and every story he told was changed by his telling it. Building upon the foundation of the New Journalists, he is one of the reasons I (both personally and the first person writ large) am part of what I report, review, write. For those familiar only with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it may be surprising to learn that Thompson began his career in the '50s, right around the time color TV was catching on. Today's reality TV stars would blush at the immersive blow-by-blow style of his book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, which chronicled the 1972 election race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon. Thompson helped transform journalism with his gonzo style, and while many may argue that sex, drugs, and rock and roll have no place in the craft, the public has repeatedly begged to differ, gobbling up Technicolor and tabloids like so many bennies.

I say that Thompson was journalism, because both he and the time in which his style held sway have passed. "Respectable" journalists increasingly retreat a safe distance from their subject matter (or worse, become paid propagandists), while other forms step in to satisfy the public's voyeuristic tendencies. I wonder what Thompson would think of the hundreds of blog posts his death generated and if he realized that blogging itself is, to some extent, the latest foray of the "I" into journalism; the most recent incarnation in his lineage. Whether or not blogging will be the newest journalism, the media industry is on the lookout for the next big thing and the ones that will give lead us to it.

A March Business Week Online article, "The Next Generation," heralded the rise of a new breed of media moguls, forecasting the rapid demise of leaders like Viacom's Sumner Redstone and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, who BW calls "the last of a breed, the builders who helped define the modern media conglomerate by making their companies extensions of their own personalities." The likely inheritors of the unruly kingdom, BW reports, are News Corp. president Peter Chernin, Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes, and Viacom's Tom Freston and Les Moonves. They also suggest some interesting comers, including Sony Pictures chair Michael Lynton (previously head of AOL's international business), Yahoo! CFO Susan L. Decker, and Virgin Mobile USA CEO Dan Schulman.

What will test the mettle of these media leaders are things like the rapid rate of technological change in the form of delivery formats and mechanisms; the coinciding emergence of new and gnarly piracy threats; consumers' real-time informational demands that bear an equal expectation of honesty and accuracy; and an audience fragmented into increasingly untidy segments. Interestingly, while the article trots out the ever-popular "content will always be king" motto, it insightfully infers that the challange for media exes will not just be distributing content for profit, but also better profiting from the content inside their companies by breaking down information silos and knowledge fiefdoms so that new ideas flow freely and content can find new ways to earn its keep.

One of the rising stars on BW's list is Sara Levinson, president of the women's group at Rodale, who is heralded for forming an almost unholy union between Prevention (a '50s-era workhorse) and Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation. Prevention will offer an interactive fitness video featuring an animated trainer to be played on these gaming devices. This kind of irreverent recasting of an old-timey content brand makes Levinson one to watch.

Another media-mogul-in-waiting, according to the article, is Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. president Scott Greenstein, who is tackling one of media's venerable forefathers, radio, by offering hundreds of commercial-free channels featuring headline-grabbing names like Howard Stern on a subscription basis. Not only does this shake the very foundations of the century-old, free, advertising-supported radio model, but it has raised a flurry of debate over whether fee-based content should fall under FCC governance.

Oh, to gather 'round the radio and listen to an edifying or entertaining broadcast suitable for the whole family . . . or so some in the '50s waxed when TV took off. But wishing doesn't make it so. There's no going back to a time before hundreds of TV channels (and still nothing to watch), drive-time shock jocks (even if we bleep the funny out of them), or a wired world replete with more than you could ever want to know from .com to .xxx. While we can't go back, we can learn from the past, and we can accept that some things may never change. Remember the words of George McGovern: "You know, sometimes, when they say you're ahead of your time, it's just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing."