Is 'dumbing up' the only way for publishers and TV firms to thrive in the social network age?

Ian Burrell listens to the argument for intelligence
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Can "dumbing up" ever make money in our modern world of instant communication and message overload? Or has the media chained itself to an endless downward spiral of simplification in a desperate but misguided effort to prevent the evaporation of audiences?

Figures as disparate as the music promoter Harvey Goldsmith and Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, found themselves this month expressing similar frustrations over the deterioration of British media debate and the negative effect on our culture.

Goldsmith identified the famous Live Aid gigs he put on with Bob Geldof in 1985 as the moment when the tabloids moved in and "changed the course of the [music] business" for ever as they began poring over the minutiae of the private lives of musicians. "That's one of the bad results of Live Aid. It changed music from being a rebellious creative juice to something that would sell newspapers," he said. "Prior to Live Aid there was never any descriptive wording in [tabloid] newspapers about our music and rock and roll stars – unless they got busted."

Alexander, for his part, was annoyed at the demise of political debate in the media, complaining of the "breakdown of the barrier between showbiz and public life".

They were gnashing their teeth in the unlikely surroundings of Portmeirion, Clough William-Ellis's fantasy village in North Wales which was a fictional detention centre for spies in the cult Sixties television show The Prisoner. The Names Not Numbers symposium, which they were both attending, involved three days spent in close proximity – like an intellectual version of Big Brother. So it was fitting that David Abraham, the Channel 4 chief executive tasked with creatively renewing that network after the axing of the infamous reality show, was among the one hundred or so residents drawn from the arts, science, politics, media and business.

The annual gathering is organised by Julia Hobsbawm's media company Editorial Intelligence and this year examined the concepts of "community and values" in an era of mass communication. It forms part of a growing trend in ideas conferences, a concept pioneered by the TED foundation in America.

A message that emerged from Names Not Numbers was that in a media environment dominated by the immediacy of Twitter, Facebook and other social sites, and saturated with a celebrity culture that personalises business and politics, serious news providers face a serious challenge to produce content of substance.

Goldsmith spoke out about the shallowness of British media in an interview with Stephen Sackur recorded for BBC World's HARDtalk programme. He may have spent his career working with stars such as the Rolling Stones, but he spoke of the "the celebrity culture that we live with in England, which is frankly appalling". Of Simon Cowell's impact on the music industry, he said: "Simon Cowell controls the world of Simon Cowell brilliantly. It's an area of the business that's entertainment [but] it's nothing to do with what I do at all." Cowell's culture, he argued, left people "disappointed" and "wanting" because it offered a fast-track to a shallow success rather than a fan base that will be long-lasting. "Life doesn't work that way – you have to pay your dues like any other business."

Alexander rejected the notion that, in the wake of the expenses scandal, the media-trained modern politician must be given a rough ride by the media. "Pre-Paxman and Pre-Humphrys there was rigorous questioning and heavy scrutiny but the working assumption was not that [the politicians] were at best deceitful and at worst corrupt," he argued. The Labour front-bencher received unlikely support from the right-leaning journalist Iain Dale, a former blogger and now a publisher and radio presenter for London station LBC. Dale criticised as pointless "the two-minute Today programme interview" on BBC Radio 4, which he said allowed no time for serious discussion.

Part of this picture is that with people complaining of being time poor, media outlets are trying to move at the same fast pace, serving up information in small pieces that are easy to digest. The Independent's sister paper i has successfully filled this need in the newspaper market, though that title has positioned itself as a refuge from celebrity culture.

But when the rest of the media is busy turning once-marginal figures from politics, business and sport into full-blown celebrities, the lines are not always clear. Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, was hired to revive Britain's oldest women's magazine and used her own profile as an author and sister of London Mayor Boris Johnson to raise awareness of the publication and increase its value. But she told Portmeirion that her personal following on Twitter was much greater than that of the magazine and acknowledged that any damage to her personal brand would have implications for the whole business.

The state of American broadcast news media should serve as a warning to Britain, claimed Janet Goldsmith, the New York-based media strategist. She complained that US networks had reduced coverage of a meeting between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to personality-based frippery, ignoring completely the substance of the pair's discussion. "There's absolutely nothing on television I can watch," she said. "Effectively what they are doing is not serving the citizen in any way."

Anwar Akhtar, director of The Samosa, a news website covering the Pakistani diaspora, feels much the same way about the British media. The Samosa is dedicated to "trying to demystify Pakistan" but is on a collision course with British journalists who obsess over the so-called preachers of hate, particularly their favourite demon, Anjem Choudary. "He's a performing monkey with eight followers and a much larger following in Fleet Street and on Channel 4 and the BBC. He's a preacher for the media," said Akhtar.

Nassim Taleb, the Lebanese former option trader and philosopher who wrote Randomness and The Black Swan on the impact of improbable events, arrived at Portmeirion from Downing Street, where he had delivered a lecture to an audience that included David Cameron. He revealed that he has stopped reading newspapers, because they overloaded him with information without leaving him better informed.

In an era when we have never had more news media, the danger is of obfuscation and distraction rather than effective communication of facts.

The tendency to see the future purely in terms of technological innovation can cast a shadow over the lessons of the past. In another talk, the writer Kimberly Quinn contrasted the Millennium Dome to the Crystal Palace which Joseph Paxton built in 1851, attracting almost one third of the UK population as visitors. Modern news organisations must compete with social media and a world where many people have vast networks of digital contacts – many of whom they have never met – who are constantly recommending fresh content to them.

Simon Schama recommended the work of the 19th-century German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, who he said would have regarded as an "oxymoron" the concept of a social network. "He would have been upset at the notion that at the click of a mouse you friend someone – or the use of 'friend' as a verb."

Media needs to enjoy a deeper relationship with its audience than just a token "like" on a Facebook page. "Our entire agenda is set by our reader response," said Gaby Darbyshire, the CEO of New York's Gawker Media, which operates a network of websites from the fashion based Jezebel to the gadget-obsessed Gizmodo.

Niche publishing that is highly-specialised and attentive to the wishes of its audience would seem to have a greater chance of achieving cut through amid so much media noise. The leading London literary agent, Caroline Michel, CEO of PFD, observed that there "have never been more stories in circulation". She is on the lookout for a new generation who can offer shorthand guides through the maze of information.

With all those stories circulating, it might seem that the media has everything covered. Who could better, for example, David Attenborough's astonishing documentary work, such as The Blue Planet? Well, according to Sir David's friend, the oceanographer Sylvia Earle, "only about five per cent of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored". In the era of instant news and friends, some of the biggest stories have not even been touched on. It's time to go a little bit deeper.