Does it Feel Like a Media Renaissance?

©IDG Communications, Inc. Photo contributed by Matthew Mikaelian.

I was recently at breakfast, a sort of meeting of the minds involving a media company, technology companies, market experts, and CEOs of start ups, arranged by a venture capital firm. Someone commented (and yes I wish it had been my statement) “do you think Leonardo knew he was part of the Renaissance at the time?”

That single question pretty much redirected the entire conversation as the table began to talk excitedly about the recent and likely coming developments in the technology and media spaces.

So if history is truly a guide to the future then I thought it made sense to look back so I could do a better job of looking ahead.

The term “Renaissance” means “new birth” and referred to the revival of art and learning that occurred in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. This period was characterized by the prolific and fabulous works of art by Da Vinci, Michelaneglo, and Raphael to name but a few. A few factors spurred this new interest in art and learning: the black death wiped out most of the peasantry in western Europe giving rise to a new middle class and in 1454 The Gutenberg Bible was published.

So did Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael believe that they were in The Renaissance at the time? I don’t think so, but some of the parallels to today are fascinating.

Back to Gutenberg, the printing press revolutionized learning and the flow of information. The Renaissance press could print 3600 pages a day compared to 40 by hand printing and a few pages when copied by hand. By 1500 there were 20 million printed volumes in circulation and that number jumped in the 16th century to between 150-200 million volumes. It was not until the 1700’s that the first newspapers arrived and then 1815-1820 when The Times of London became the first paper to print on both sides of a page, producing a cheaper product that more people could afford. In 1830 the first penny press newspaper arrived that cost 1/6th the price of other newspapers.

Does any of this sound familiar to today’s media and technology worlds? So maybe the black death is a bit extreme, but the publishing industry generally has been hit over the head again and again: first the Internet, then the rise of search and Google, and finally, a devastating recession. This leaves many of those in media wondering when will it get at least a little bit better. Everybody should know that it is never to going to be as it once was in the golden days of print with organized information dissemination tied to a steady stream of profits. But how many of us feel like we are in a period of Renaissance?

It took almost 400 years from the arrival of the printing press to the production of newspapers that the masses could afford. For context it took radio 38 years to hit 50 million listeners, TV 13 years, Internet four years, the iPod three years, and Facebook added 100 million users in nine months. We are living in a period of unheralded change and transformation. People now access content in real time all the time whether on the Internet, the mobile Internet or via an application.

It was only three years ago that the iPhone arrived and turned the smartphone and mobile Internet experience on its head: suddenly content looked great on a phone. Then came the applications that provide rich user experiences and now some 200 thousand apps exist on the Apple platform alone. Recently, Apple introduced another revolutionary computing and communication device with the iPad. It’s a game changer.

Every major media company is excited by this development and the slew of tablet devices from the Nook to the expected competing devices from PC makers. Mobile changes the user experience with content that supplements the wired web.

All of these rapid fire developments revolve around content and users who are connected almost ubiquitously to infinte streams of information and rich multimedia. It took 400 years for information to be democratized during the Renaissance. In less than 20 years since the advent of the Internet media and technology have combined to create a world of democratized media, learning, and creativity.

Content in this new world is once again King, but the delivery mechanisms keep changing. The King is dead, long live the King.

Despite all of the challenges of the past two decades, will we look back and reference this period as a media Renaissance?

Minsider columnist Matthew Yorke is president, IDG Strategic Marketing Services.

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