Interview - Bruce Arnold

Interview: Bruce Arnold, Director, Caslon Analytics: 1st September 2003

After a month of negotiating, Media Man Australia interviews a company that has been on our radar for quite some time - Caslon Analytics.

Caslon are experts in the field of research, legal, technology, media, strategies and more.

What is your background, and that of Caslon Analytics?

Caslon Analytics is a multidisciplinary internet research and analysis specialist. We are based in Canberra: no traffic, lots of parks, 90 minutes to the sea. Our people have a background in business and government. We’ve done work for a range of government agencies, Australian and overseas businesses, and even some individuals. We’ve never advertised; most of our work is through referrals and we get significant repeat business from past clients.

Among the general public we're best known for the Caslon site, which has several hundred pages on technical issues, legislation and business questions.

My background is in ‘digital technologies’ regulation, commercialisation and intellectual property. I'm on a range of industry working parties and lecture periodically.

We have a particular interest in the 'content industries' and a healthy disrespect for some of the pronouncements about the 'death of old media', the 'new economy' or 'the end of history'. That interest is reflected in the site.

Is a key part of your business? provides profiles of around 170 major media groups in Australia and overseas, including maps of their holdings, statistics, histories and bibliographies ... around 290,000 words in all. Access is free.

The main 'competition' is the more limited Columbia Journalism Review media ownership site. The CJR site is unfortunately restricted to the US and doesn't offer the same detail. That's a shame, because it would be interesting to see the CJR perspective on Berlusconi, Sanoma WSOY, Fairfax or NHK. We've made a point of covering European, Japanese, Singaporean, Canadian and Latin American groups because they offer perspectives on media in Australia and because many groups now operate globally.

We set up several years ago as a way of managing questions from business, government and academic contacts. Essentially it's a public version of information that we assembled in writing a book and had been using for responses to individual queries. We figured that it was easier to transfer that information to the web and let people graze. As time permits we're adding interpretive information on topics such as media concentration, spectrum licensing, demographics and censorship.

I noticed that don't you capitalise Internet and Web. Why?

Because the party's over. For many people the internet is as unremarkable - and essential - as the telephone, television or radio. It's subject to law (the big question now is whose law, eg whether the US First Amendment extends to all online content, rather than whether the net's necessarily free of law). The online population in advanced economies has normalised, ie now has much the same characteristics as the population at large. And, particularly since the dot-com crash, it's located in the same economic universe as traditional media.

Claims for 'Internet Exceptionalism' - that the net's special, it's different, it's unprecedented, it's free, it doesn't (or can't) obey normal rules - have to be regarded with some skepticism.

What's your perspective on the media?

A mix of robust agnosticism and fascination: just can't go past the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. It's the crowd, not the decomposing media dinosaurs on the info superhighway.

So you don't think Old Media is dead?

From a historical perspective 'Old Media' - and most of the old media organisations - are doing OK.

Things are certainly more positive than the late 1950s and mid-1970s, which saw major unhappiness for newspaper/magazine publishers and radio station operators, accompanied by shakeups in book publishing and record companies. Much of the commercial angst at the moment is attributable to poor management rather than the inevitable rise of 'new media', little of which has proved to be compelling or commercially sustainable. Spending US$200 million on record deals with Michael Jackson, box-office disasters, big-ticket authors or takeovers remains a good way to lose money ... there's no need to blame the net.

In looking at debate about the content industries - particularly 'big media' - I'm often struck by demonisation and lack of context. With apologies to Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein, it is unclear that the media (or particular moguls) are as powerful as often claimed. It's also unclear that there's much new under the sun: conglomerates come, conglomerates go, assets get churned, audiences are fickle, producing compelling content on a commercial basis is difficult, the experience (and infrastructure) of the dinosaurs continues to be of value ...

What are the most important issues in the Australian media business today, from where you sit? eg – the ABC-Alston bias allegations, media ownership, PR being presented as news ...

The golden age of journalism is always the one just before your own. The latest ownership developments are always more sinister than those of the past (if you are a critic) or offer greater growth, new content, better delivery (if you're an advocate). And the latest technology is always going to be qualitatively different: more seductive, better targeted, offering greater opportunities for creativity and enlightenment ... or destruction of the family.

Much of the buzz about current issues looks rather ephemeral. There's little critical analysis of how the business works: the interaction of investment, creativity, consumers, distribution, Chandlerian scale and scope, competition, regulatory constraints, the role of tabby cats such as the Press Council and captives such as the ABA. There's little analysis of sameness in the mass media: five free-to-air tv and a handful of radio networks (largely indistinguishable), three or four newspaper groups (ditto, esp in regional Australia) - five hundred channels in shades of grey and beige.

What are the merits and cons of online publishing and broadcasting?

Big question. I'll touch on a number of issues.

Much online publishing is still driven by technology rather than by any real sense of what audiences want and how they interact with the both the medium and the specific content. Corporate sites in particular have little engagement with users: there's lots of brochureware, little that is compelling to people other than the art director, little that builds a relationship.

Government deserves recognition for efforts to increase accessibility to its processes by publishing a range of information online: all the paper that was so difficult to identify and obtain in the past. Global delivery of content via the web, on a timely basis, is a major plus. In Canberra I can sit on a park bench with my laptop and read US government statements, much of the New York Times, yesterday's Hansard or something from Reporters sans frontieres ... and distribute my thoughts as quickly as I can type. A downside of that immediacy is that for some people what's offline doesn't exist - there's a lot of lazy reporting and the web often has the memory of a gnat.

Online broadcasting? We don't differentiate between publishing and broadcasting: it's just content. We've seen little effective online broadcasting sourced from Australia, both because infrastructure problems (most people don't have broadband) and because there's a lack of 'compelling content'.

One merit is the freedom to experiment (as with your site) and challenge preconceptions.

How do you see "traditional" news outlets combating online publishing and broadcasting, where the Internet is based largely on free speech and freedom of information?

It’s a myth – rather a pernicious myth – that the internet is necessarily ‘free’ (ie content can be produced for free, access must be without charge, publication cannot and must not be restricted in any way).

We’re at the end of the ‘free internet’: many online publishers are busy installing firewalls to recoup publishing costs, 'free' outlets are experimenting with pay-per-play or other mechanisms after acknowledging that traditional online advertising isn't going to pay their costs. And events such as the Gutnick defamation action are reminding publishers, readers and lawyers that while cyberspace might be off somewhere in the aether, servers and corporate assets are located on terra firma - claims of 'free' don't look convincing when you've been defamed or a judge lets someone seize your assets.

What we're seeing is a fusion of 'old' and 'new' media. In terms of quality, old media's colonisation of the web is producing better content than most of the self-consciously net-only news outlets ... it understands 'news' (which is far more important than understanding XML), it has the news collecting and editorial infrastructure, it has the financial resources (unlike many individuals and dot-coms), it has the incentive to use new technologies to better understand it's audiences. I expect the New York Times to be round long after Matt Drudge has become a footnote.

What makes that Australia freedom of speech law on the Internet different to that of the US? The Gutnick case attracted world wide coverage. Is that the shape of the future?

In Australia, as in the US, there’s no separate ‘free speech’ or defamation law specific to the net. The net is covered by traditional information law (ie legislation and case law): what we’ve seen over the past five years is the law catching up with technology, the same lag evident in uptake of earlier new technologies such as the telegraph and radio. One of the landmark cases occurred in Australia as long ago as 1994, when David Rindos won damages for defamatory comments on a computer bulletin board.

Australia doesn't have the First Amendment; our defamation law (like that in the UK) has often been seen as more restrictive than that in the US. Australian judges, unsurprisingly, have been reluctant to relinquish responsibility to a US court. That's the case with other disputes: French courts have ruled that French law applies in France and (for what it's worth) everywhere else in the world. An unspoken assumption underlying much rhetoric about cyberspace is that the 'spirit of the net' embodies the US Constitution: a lex informatica based on the 'first and the fifth' as one of my colleagues jokes.

What we'll see is a plethora of cases, attempts to harmonise the major regimes through mechanisms such as the proposed Hague Convention on Jurisdiction & Foreign Judgements, and a lot of entertainment as different lawyers or countries assert that their rules are more valid than those in a neighbouring state.

Who do you see as Australia's next Phillip Adams, as far as accomplishments in film and media?

Phillip (like predecessors such as Max Harris) would probably want us to think that he’s unique. Overall I'm more impressed by Gerard Henderson's cogency and intellectual independence.

If we're looking ahead to people who offer insights into production/consumption - or are simply entertaining - I’d like to see a new George Orwell, Brian Fitzgerald, Karl Kraus, George Munster, Janet Flanner, Paul Einzig or Claud Cockburn. We're still waiting for someone whose media analysis is as exciting and accessible as Elizabeth David on food. The Fin Review and Australian feature bleeding chunks from overseas journals: surely its time to encourage local writers to escape from the Australia Council publishing ghetto - all those worthy Westerlys and Southerlys.

Do radio broadcasting personalities have too much power?

I flagged that I'm a media agnostic. There's little substantive support for claims that shockjocks decide elections, drive juries, mesmerise the audience into purchasing this or that. Media critics, media scholars and media personalities take the power of the shockjock for granted … but as with advertising and propaganda is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes? A range of research suggests that the effect of film propaganda wasn’t as powerful or long-lasting as claimed by promoters. Audiences often ‘misread’ the message. Much advertising clearly doesn’t work – even if you can recall the jingle, did it make you buy the specific brand? I'm not convinced that the jocks sway general elections or do much more than legitimate decisions made by pollsters and ministers.

If they are too powerful, is it time to encourage good behaviour by suspending a broadcasting licence or two? Or by looking seriously at the current self-regulation regime and client capture of bodies such as the ABA?

How can the consumer of news media in all forms, ensure they are not just being bombarded by "spin" ie PR, shaped as news, bias reporting etc?

Recognise that the consumer isn’t a bucket filled with slops. Media consumers have choices. Commercial media are dependent on consumers: they’re responsive to sales, circulation figures, demographics. If you’re unhappy with the range/depth of content or the spin, switch channels or publications. We’re all living in an ‘attention economy’: encourage higher standards by withholding your attention (and thereby the dollars) from underperformers.

Don’t decry ‘trash tv’, tabloid journalism or media intrusions and then watch the programs, read the publications. Ask why your privacy is sacrosanct (except where, like many people online, you are prepared to cash it in for a chance to win) but the private lives of celebrities aren't private? Examine news critically. Don't depend on a single source. Humphrey McQueen noted that "although marketers cannot dictate our desires, they do affect what is available to fulfil our needs". Media consumers can influence what's made available.

Should mobile telephone be banned from school classrooms, given that a student took a photo of his teacher ripping up his media assignment, and therefore was evidence of the student being harassed and intimidated etc?

Let me offer some questions in response.

Why do you need a mobile phone in the classroom, in a change-room, in church or other venues? Are the needs compelling? What are we going to do when the wireless web starts penetrating into high schools and primary schools. Several US academics lament that it’s hard to get the attention of university students, who spend time texting or emailing rather than paying attention. There have been cases of students SMSing answers answers for examination papers (sure beats writing them on your cuffs). Time to "just say no" and turn it off for a few hours.

New technologies such as 3G phones are posing questions about our concepts of public and private space ... and more broadly about rights and responsibilities. The mobile in the classroom is similar to the Box Brownie, which allowed truly spontaneous public photos - people caught unawares, unposed - for the first time. As with most innovations, language in the first years is centred on rights. I assume that we'll hear more debate about responsibilities. Do celebrities 'own' their images? Do they relinquish protection from paparazzi, for example, just because they're famous? What about people who aren't celebrities? What are the bounds of privacy in the digital environment?

What do you see as the pros and cons of online blogging, and do you contribute to any, or do you stick to traditional Internet publishing?

We've discussed blogging (and new developments such as vlogging) at some length on the Caslon site. The DIY publishing model on the web predates colonisation of the net by 'corporate media'. Blogging as a mass phenomenon is likely to be as long-lasting as the hula hoop: many people will blog (although, as with offline diaries, often for only a short time) but the delirious forecasts of some promoters and claims about the impact of blogging are overstated.

The pros are essentially that authors can place their content (words, images, sounds) before a global audience without significant difficulty.

Cons? More people seem to be writing blogs than reading them.

Blogging's been acclaimed as liberation from 'big media' or as the latest 'new journalism' (one of those things that appears every twenty years). Unfortunately many people aren't familiar with issues such as defamation and don't have the unfrastructure for fact-checking or editorial standards. Much news blogging is an echo chamber, without original facts or interpretation.

More fundamentally, having a keyboard isn't the same as being able to write or having something compelling to say. A lot of blogs don't rise above the level of "I had a cheese sandwich for lunch". Blogging may, as one advocate claims, release the author's 'inner child' but there are times when children shouldn't be seen or heard.

My dog has a blog, which I gather is well regarded by the four-pawed but not read by Max Suitch or Esther Dyson.

What will be the final outcome of the big 5 music labels war with Internet file shares?

Like Europe in 1945? Business as usual amid the smoke, rubble, dead bodies, relief and disappointed expectations? Only the lawyers and advocates will really win?

Creators (composers, lyricists, performers) deserve to get paid and deserve recognition for their contribution to society. As Hugh Hansen points out, the 'busker' model gets airtime in academia and in digital lifestyle mags such as WIRED (hip ideas about the inevitable death of IP amid ads for designer gizmos and breathless prose about hydrogen-powered flying cars) but isn't viable on a large scale. We've got a conundrum: how do we create and distribute content in an environment where many consumers have expectations about 'instant gratification', digerati legitimate large-scale appropriation and major businesses (which have traditionally screwed creators) seem to have lost the plot. "Information just wants to be free" (for people who expect to pay for designer water but not creativity) versus "Creators just want to be fed and/or respected"?

I suspect that the real turning point will come to be seen as the establishment of Apple's iTunes music store - online delivery of legitimate copies of recordings at an affordable price. Until now the only people making money from online music have been lawyers, hardware vendors and those offering ringtones! What we'll probably see is a lot of litigation - remember, the music industry is seen as the canary down the digital content mine - and iTune-type services underpinned by the full panoply of digital wrappers and other IPR-enhancement technologies.

What's wrong with radio and TV syndication as far as the consumer is concerned? eg extinction on local news, de-personalized etc

It's important to recognise that syndication has been round for a very long time and that it addresses fundamental issues, eg few minor newspapers or broadcasters can afford the expense of a full staff of newsgatherers in overseas locations or afford media stars. Your local free-to-air station can't put a news team on the ground in Brussels or Chicago. No-one seems to be able to keep a team in places like the Congo, Eritrea or Azerbaijan (probably just as well, because we'd be jolted out of our comfortable compassion fatigue when we want to be rivetted by Shane Warne's SMS). It's easier - and often cheaper - to buy a package of homogenised content from New York (or Sydney). As consumers we seem to be reluctant to bear the costs of a first rate ABC news service - or perhaps we don't understand those costs - and commercial media are about commercial first, media second.

The challenge for some of the major news outlets is responding to conflicting consumer expectations: providing the immediacy of coverage of micro-markets without descending into parochialism. Overseas that's a problem where community newspapers are eroding the viability of some broadsheets. Locally, well ... some markets are seeing a flight to quality as readers eschew the local rag for anything except 'hatches, matches & despatches' and rely on a metropolitan paper (or, courtesy of the net, the online Guardian or Times). Syndication issues aren't restricted to 'old media'. Much of the news on the web is uncritical, unabashed, often unconscious recycling of content from a handful of sources. The downside of online personalisation is that people don't get out of their comfort zone ... the sort of thing that Cass Sunstein worries about in

Are manufactures deliberately "dumbing down" technology, to keep the power in their hands, rather than hand it over to the people?

If they are dumbing down the technology (as opposed to the content), I wish that they'd hurry up! Compare the reliability, ease of use, speed and low cost of your toaster and most software programs. How often does your toaster crash? How often do you have to update it? How long have you spent listening to hold music waiting for help about your toaster (or served as a test-crash-dummy doing a free debug of the vendor's pricey software, full of nifty features that even Dr Spock wouldn't use)?

What we're seeing is a 'dumbing up' of applications from software vendors. The products from hardware manufacturers get better and better (and cheaper and cheaper). Products from software companies seem to get get cruddier (and more expensive), often with a requirement that users upgrade to the latest version if they're to be supported or enjoy true compatability with other users.

Describe freedom of the press in Australia?

There’s an old joke that freedom of the press belonged to anyone who had a press. I think that it was Mencken who updated that to anyone who had a press AND the money to buy a very good defamation lawyer. We'd add the determination to take on the great and good.

It's been acknowledged for at least three decades that Australian defamation law is more restrictive than that of the US. There are benefits to that restriction and disadvantages. Arguably investigative journalism's been more difficult for Australn journalists and the local proprietors have been more cautious. One response has been that Parliament offers a forum for the exposure of particular concerns; unfortunately the smears that we've seen during the past five years (and the tacit acceptance of that behaviour by fellow parliamentarians) induces a certain caution. I'd be reluctant to hand more power to proprietors without a strong sense that they'd behave responsibly.

Will AOL Time Warner keep the AOL out of their name indefinitely?

AOL (the dominant US internet service provider, noted for its 'walled garden' approach and criticisms of its service) merged with the Time Warner print, film and music conglomerate during the dot-com boom. It was promoted as the 'marriage made in heaven', bringing together carriage and content, providing economies of scale necessary for success in global markets. The marriage went sour: Time managers thought that the company had been raped by AOL execs, massive savings and synergies haven't eventuated, the share price slumped, heads rolled, stockholders cried fraud.

Other conglomerates have had similar problems, an indication that while you can buy lots of animals for your media circus it's difficult to make them perform under the same big-top. One of the reasons that we feature chronologies on the site is as an illustration that many of the largest media groups have a long history and that churn of assets from one group to another seems to be a standard business practice. At the moment many groups are flogging a bit of this, a bit of that - sports teams (eg News and Disney), publishers, multimedia producers. It remains to be seen whether AOL Time Warner takes the 'AOL' out of the corporate name ... and whether it spins off the AOL arm in toto or as a tracking stock.

Was "Three" overhyped?

The problem with 3G is that it was interesting technology, problematical economics. Most telcos paid inflated prices for 3G licences, despite the best analysis money could buy. Overall consumer response has been tepid. For many users there are only so many photos you can send to your friends (when I was in Tokyo people were exchanging snaps of their dogs, but they all looked the same) or your insurance assessor, video isnt available or is too costly, what else is there?

The revolution's around the corner but it's likely to take the form of pervasive wireless connectivity. You won't surf the web, page after page, on your phone. You will surf on something that looks like a PDA. You might even view video on that device, if the infrastructure and economics come together. Freeing personal computers from the copper wire will affect how we create and access content. And it means that we won't have to crawl under desks or behind the sofa so often.

Will FOX learn from the mistakes that Optus made with iTV in Australia?

Perhaps iTV as such is a mistake ... like three-d glasses or super-wide projection in cinemas. Nice idea ... but no-one's been able to get it to work outside a few special formats (production costs for compelling product are high, consumer interest is low).

What news sources and journalists do you trust and respect the most?

We're media junkies, so we cover all the usual sources and some weird & wonderfuls. What’s the line from the X-Files – “trust no one”. We wouldn’t go that far but there's something to be said for reading everything critically. As a matter of taste and schedules we don't spend much time watching free-to-air news. We skim the major Australian tabloids and broadsheets, usually while listening to the radio, and work through print/online editions of overseas papers and journals.

In Australia, how many of the following does each household have on average: Computer with web? TV? Mobile?

Detailed statistics about devices in homes, schools and businesses (and comments about the credibility of different estimates) appear on our site.

The real question is how the devices are being used.

There are lots of VCRs, for example, but most appear to be used for playing prerecorded tapes (rather than to timeshift free-to-air broadcasts). Similarly, there are lots of advanced phones ... that are only used for voice and SMS. Most people don't want to or can't afford to use advanced features: having a WAP phone means that you have the device, not that you're surfing (so many WAP claims are false).

What is the solution for "information overload"?

The solution? It’s called the OFF button (or the DELETE button, if you’re stressing about email). Let’s get real about this … people have been grizzling about information overload (and longhaired kids, the decline of literature …) as long as we have records. Chinese scholars complained in 810 AD that there were too many books, far too many books ... authors should stop writing for a century so that everyone could catch up. Europeans in the 1870s wrote about an epidemic of stress attributable to a deluge of newspapers, telegrams, letters (eg up to seven deliveries per day in London) and very fast trains.

Claims of digital information overload appear about every three years. They get media coverage but aren't substantiated by actual behaviour. Most people seem to be managing quite well: they use the delete button, they skim a lot of paperwork, they surf the net while listening to the radio/tv, they even turn off the mobile phone!


Editors note: An amazing interview. A could write a novel of a reply, but haven't got this time, so WOW!. If they don't win some business from this interview, in one way or another, I will be amazed. Media Man Australia sounds like a potential client - now we have to make some decent money to pay them for the information on how to make money from the media and new media business : ) Greg Tingle says "we are on the way to securing a government grant". More interviews like this and the government can't say no. Thanks again Bruce.


Caslon Analytics


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Derek Wilding - Communications Law Centre

Lee Tien - Electronic Frontiers Foundation

Peter Webb - Digital Broadcasting Australia

Paul Budde - Budde Communications

Phillip Adams - Broadcaster

Danny Schechter - Media Channel