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Posted May 21, 2012
This book is a true achievement by David Halberstam. It is really something and I highly recommend it.
The book follows the evolution of the information distribution business (aka: "The Media") and how the industry directly shapes our political institutions, foreign policy, war fighting, business environment, and culture. Halberstam details the origin and emergence of four icons of the media business: CBS News (radio & TV), Time, the Washington Post, and the LA Times.
When I started this book, I knew a bit about a lot of the subjects (Vietnam War, Media, Congressional and Presidential History, etc), but this book did something remarkable. It connected the dots for me by demonstrating how information distribution is a connective tissue running between these topics.
Another fascinating aspect of this book is all the parallels between the events documented in the book and the current revolution in the information distribution business as driven by the Internet, social media, etc. The technology may be different, but the manner in which these changes reshape society is striking.
As the speed of information distribution increases, it alters the balance of power between institutions. Whether it's television enabling the President to directly reach citizens, thereby tipping the balance of power away from Congress and towards the executive branch. Or, the new media leading to the elimination of the old Party Bosses, whose primary function (gathering a crowd to ensure that candidates had access to the voters) and base of power was undercut by the ability of the candidates to appeal directly to voters. The speed of information reshapes the institutions of this country.
And, it's hard not to see parallels between modern companies like FaceBook and the story of the L.A. Times. During the War, shortages of raw materials led to the imposition of strict rationing of supplies on newspapers like the Times. The Times was locked in a battle for supremacy with another local morning paper. The Times had to decide where to cut back in the paper, basically it could maximize revenue by cutting back on substantive content while maintaining its advertising/classified ads OR it could focus on the substantive content and building its subscriber base at the expense of advertising revenue. The Times decided to focus on substantive content of the war, losing advertising to its competitor. However, when the war ended, the advertisers came flocking back to the Times because of its massive subscriber rates, which made the Times the dominant paper and ensured its prominence in the market.
In short, much like FaceBook, it matters less whether you have strong current revenue stream, just so long as you have the ability to reach a massive number of people. The mere ability to communicate information to a wide market of people is a tremendous asset, even if you have yet to monetize that asset. Of course, long-term, you have to be able to monetize it, but there is tremendous power in being able to distribute information.
Overall, this book is tremendous and remains as timely and relevant today as when it was first published.
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