My media habits: Bibliosexual’s Dave McCaughan – ‘Too much guff gets accepted because it’s a catchy tweet’

In a conversation with Mumbrella's Dean Carroll, Bibliosexual founder and storyteller Dave McCaughan is unabashed about how old-school his media habits are – name-checking terrestrial TV, a stereo system and his love for the 'retro' movie offerings in in-flight entertainment

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

A long long time ago when I first joined the advertising world an early mentor told me ‘It’s never a waste of time to start the day with an hour seeing what is happening’. So I start my day with The Guardian and rifle round the UK, US and Australian editions online to get a feel of the world. 

“Then over a coffee, I listen to the ESPNFC podcast to get up to speed on football because as my mum drilled into me from the time I was seven: ‘If you don’t play football you can leave home now’. 

“Way too old to play now but football is life. Then it’s two daily feeds I get from SignificanceSystems, the AI research platform I partner with sometimes. They have a whole bunch of daily feeds but I mostly read the ones on AI and on Luxury Retail because one way or another, I seem to get projects around both quite a bit. 

“And during the course of the day I watch clips from the days output from the YoungTurks site to get a good alternative view of US politics.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely?

“My website is called Bibliosexual. What do you think? Of course, I use them all and like all of us, I have irrational attachments to some mediums more than others. But at heart I was trained and worked as a librarian for a decade and the smell and touch of printed paper just gives things gravitas.”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“Long-form if I can. Deep reading and hard thinking just leads to better ideas. Of course, too many good, smart people publish mostly in short form these days. Often smart thoughts. But it too often leaves me wishing they would spend more time detailing. And too much guff gets accepted because it’s a catchy tweet.” 

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great?

“I used to love reading Rob Hughes in the old International Herald Tribune. Great football writer, who provided every aspect of the game with character. 

Mungo MacCallum

“I recently re-discovered Mungo MacCallum who was a really influential left wing political journalist for me when I was in my 20s and who now turns out to write a column in the local paper where my brother lives back in Australia. Same themes, same gripes, same biases. Love it.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view?

“Sadly the sensationalist has invaded everything. It was always around but now it seems to overwhelm. Think about our own business. Too many headlines about what are really minor controversies or fads.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to?

“No. I used to subscribe. But in truth, there are just too many good things to read and watch and I prefer to buy books, papers, magazines, reports etc on the spur these days.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix?

“I love terrestrial broadcast TV. I used to really love it when there were only 3-5 channels ( yes I am really old ) because it made us learn so much more. We were forced to watch whatever was on and in a way that forced us to watch what we maybe did not know or would have preferred. Today of course in many markets, terrestrial is just another digital option but it is still the most watched content on earth and I like to randomly just browse. 

“In truth, it drives my wife mad as I will literally watch anything. Well not ‘talent shows’. I draw the line at those. But like everyone else I binge on streaming series as well. It always leaves me in a twist though, as I miss the necessary waiting period of old style TV and destination viewing.” 

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity in terms of discovering fresh content not aligned with your previous preferences?

“I’m not big on recommendation engines. More like limitation engines. Amazon put me off them for life ( let me tell you the vampire love stories disaster next time you buy me a coffee ).

“Once the engines think they have you sorted, it just takes too much work to dissuade them from hammering you with me-too or dodgy ‘nearly the same thing’ recommendations.  And I just prefer to trial and error and accidentally find new things to read/watch/play.” 

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you?

“Avengers Endgame because it was a family thing. Two adult children in Australia, my wife and I in Bangkok and in recent years catching the latest Avengers flick together or on the same day in different cities and then group calls to dissect. At least one shared media habit. Great stuff.

“Gentleman Prefer Blondes – you know how a lot of airlines will have a ‘retro’ or ‘old times’ movie offering? I am a sucker for them. I love watching movies from the 1940s, 50s and 60s and seeing how the great social medium of the day displayed what was in and out, politically correct and how things have changed.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing?

“Blacklist. Red Reddington quotes are just great. James Spader has been my favourite TV actor through three shows and two decades.”

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television?

“Mobile, laptop, television. No real bias. Usually some combination of two of the three going at once. I grew up in a house where if anyone was awake the TV was on, even if we were listening to the radio or playing music or reading.”

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space?

“This is a topic that could go forever. Maybe a big stage discussion at Mumbrella360 Asia? In truth we all ‘know’ it’s sort of a bad thing, yet who am I to throw the first stone? 

“We want the content, we don’t want to pay for it. Old problem. And technology to pirate will always be ahead of that to control.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?“I just read ‘ Empty Planet’ by Darrell Bicker and John Ibbitson, which is all about how we will soon have a planet with an ageing, declining population. That is the future. I find it exciting. A good book with a lot of interesting realities explained. Nothing new to those interested in demographics, but it should be talked about a lot more among marketers who are distracted by vagueness like ‘millennials’ or ‘alphas’.

“But my favourite book of late was an old copy of ‘Clean and Decent: A Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the WC’ from 1960, that my son found for me at a charity book sale. Those that have heard me talk about what social media really matter will know my passion around toilets.”

So Kindle or hard copy?

“Always hard copy. Tried the various e-book formats. Just turns me off. See above: Bibliosexual.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music?

“I still have a couple hundred old albums that get a turn on the stereo regularly (younger readers can look up such terms). I’ve bought almost no music in a decade. Radio and free downloads. 

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

“Recently I have been listening to the catalogue of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. I just randomly pick an episode and find it’s both reminding me of a lot of music I had forgotten, a lot I don’t remember ever hearing and discovering a lot of new recent wonders.”

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?

“A mixed bag. Too much junk, and way too much of the same stuff (the prediction models again). But then, when you get really fed up with the limitations that social media as we know it now provides, along comes someone who posts something interesting. 

“The problem I have is really the limited way in which we as an industry think of social networks/media as something new and limited to digital spaces.”


And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation?

“Sure they are. They accept, filter, catalogue, disseminate, accept commercial messaging and have editorial policies. They are media companies.”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

I am not sure that things have changed that much. Book publishers going back to the 1400s were gatekeepers. News media from the town crier and cave paintings were always selective based on audience feedback. 

“What I do miss is more open and shared knowledge and less channeling into repeated selections and biases. Broader, deeper again.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“‘If I knew, would I tell you ?’ That is the answer I am waiting to hear from Siri and her friends. Truth: we have always used ‘virtual assistants’ to tell us what we should consume. 

“That was at the core of the wars of the Reformation. My time as a public librarian taught me that members assumed I could be that guide (poor deluded souls). Many a time I was asked to recommend a ‘good mystery’ or help a kid doing a project on dinosaurs to ‘just tell me the answers so I don’t have to read the book’. 

“All jokes aside, my three decades as a planner has a lot of the time been about deciding on, summarising and filtering information. Now I too use machine platforms for searching and analysing information. 

“It’s just a part of us. I am always reminded of a 13 year old Tokyo kid we interviewed in 1993 in a study on how teens then were coping with the new world of technology: My computer is just an extension of me.”

Dave McCaughan is the founder and storyteller at consultancy Bibliosexual and is based in Bangkok, Thailand


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