Media: Are you an owner, streamer or a tweener?

Janet’s collection of JFK books, aka, the JFK Library.

At last week’s gathering of Knight News Challenge winners, an intense debate broke out over the future of media.

Yes, it was in a bar. No, it was not about the future of news, or the sustainability of particular platforms. It wasn’t even about innovating new platforms – although this round’s winners, focused on mobile, ranged from globalizing Wikipedia to turning mobile phones in Uganda into mini radio stations.

It was about media. Media that you read, hear and see. More specifically: What used to be called books, music and film.

And this basic question: To own or not to own?

That is, do you buy music by the song, album or collection, either in CD or digital form, or do you pay for curation in the form of Pandora or Songza?

Do you buy DVD or Blu-Ray movies, or simply rent from a streaming or on-demand service like Apple TV or Netflix?

Do you buy books – physical or digital – or do you rent them from Amazon or other services, such as BookSwim or eBookFling?

Opinions were evenly split between the strident, “I will never pay for music again, but I will pay for smart play lists,” to the emotional possessive, “I feel more comfortable owning my movies; it’s like having comfort food handy.”

Me, I fell in the middle. (Yes. At 47, it appears that I am a media tweener.) I do both. Most of my media is digital (the last hardback book I bought, ironically, was Steve Jobs’ biography) and, while I own a lot of music and movies, most of my consumption now comes from streaming services.

But this debate is more about a personal choice in consumption preferences. It’s about the sheer physical and social presence of media.

Media used to take up a lot of room. Our homes used to be filled with furniture to store it, display it, showcase it. Grand, oak bookcases towered over us, a sign of intelligence and knowledge – Look how well-read I am! – reflecting a person’s taste. Friends used to spend hours picking through CD jewel cases and VCR (oh, my!) and DVD cases to find common interests, new avenues and oddities so we could listen and watch together.

And there was a whole stereo ritual that involved evaluating and appreciating another person’s components, speakers, even their cables – because this stuff was as reflective of a person’s taste as his choice of car. We tricked out our stereos like musclecar owners trick out Stingrays.

Old radios were great for stereo components – until the components became a phone.

I used to restore and retrofit old barrister bookcases for CD jewel cases – old world craftsmanship meets digital music. Ditto on old floor-model radios; I’d refinish their gorgeous burl veneers and gut their single-cone speaker innards to build stereo-component shelves. Friends liked the idea so much I became an assembly line for a few years, giving new homes and purpose to Philcos, RCAs and Zeniths.

(In college, I once borrowed a newspaper single-copy sales box to use as a combination stereo stand and album storage unit. It was a big hit at parties. Not so much with the police. But that’s another story.)

Now my primary stereo component is a phone and high-end headphones. Friends don’t leaf through my collection to listen together; what would we use, a splitter? And my most current library is in the Amazon cloud.

Still, the draw of physical, owned media persists, blended with the efficiency of curated collections and on-demand libraries.

The bar-side debate among Knight News Challenge grantees, Knight staff and the accompanying gray matter (such as myself) did not resolve much. But it reminded me that as our media consumption habits change, so do our physical and social environments.

Furniture becomes obsolete. Party behavior shifts from a sofa and Klipsch speakers to an iPhone bluetoothed to a JBL Flip. And movies will soon migrate from our flat-screen behemoths to personal specs.

Media endures. Even if it disappears.

What about you? Are you an owner, streamer or a tweener? Please join the conversation.