What Is Digital Media? All You Need to Know About This Booming Industry

The word “media” applies to many things in the 21st century, from mass media to news media, and traditional media to the many emerging forms of digital media. While you can likely come up with several different examples –– and almost certainly you take in some form of media in your everyday life –– it can be difficult to succinctly define the word.  It comes from the Latin medius or medium, which means “the middle layer.” Media is an expression that brings some type of information or entertainment from one body to another.

Before the advent of the digital age, the most popular forms of media were what we now call analog or traditional media: radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, journals, and the like. Since then, the technological revolution has brought with it many new types of media that now play a major role in disseminating information and entertainment to populations around the world. But what is digital media? What does it encompass, how did it evolve, and where is it headed? Read on to learn more about digital media, including different types, major companies in the field, and digital media job markets. We’ll also unpack what kind of educational background can position you to embark on a career in digital media.

Graphic designers working on computer at desk.

Defining Digital Media

Unlike traditional media, digital media is transmitted as digital data, which at its simplest involves digital cables or satellites sending binary signals –– 0s and 1s –– to devices that translate them into audio, video, graphics, text, and more. Anytime you use your computer, tablet, or cellphone, opening web-based systems and apps, you’re consuming digital media. Digital media might come in the form of videos, articles, advertisements, music, podcasts, audiobooks, virtual reality, or digital art.

The digital age began to unfold in the second half of the 20th century, as computer technology slowly infiltrated different industries and then moved into the public sphere. Yet analog technology remained dominant even through the 1990s. In the years that followed, newspapers, magazines, radio, and broadcast television were still the primary means of communication, with fax machines and pagers becoming most people’s first casual forays into the digital world.

When the internet went from a niche hobby to something common in most American homes, the digital age was fully underway. Now, most people walk around with at least one digital media device in their pocket, purse, or backpack, using digital communication at work, on their commutes, and even while out to dinner or shopping. After that, they might come home and play a video game or stream a show, interacting with digital media yet again. Before they go to sleep, they might talk to their digital home assistant, finding out the weather forecast for the following day. What is digital media? The answer is not a simple one. Defining digital media is difficult because it is rapidly evolving alongside innovations in technology and how people interact with it. As we move into the future, our day-to-day use of digital media will likely only increase, particularly as holographic and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are developed and incorporated into our daily lives.

Exploring Types of Digital Media

Traditional (nondigital) media includes several types of communication technologies, some of which have existed for hundreds of years. Newspapers, magazines, books, and other printed materials were among the first types of traditional media. Those forms of media persist, joined in the 19th century by the telegraph and in the 20th century by radio and television, the first examples of mass media.

The digital era, however, meant a whole new set of media transmission methods and devices, with more developed every year. These days, most types of digital media fit into one of these main subgroups:

  • Audio: Audio forms of digital media include digital radio stations, podcasts, and audiobooks. Tens of millions of Americans subscribe to digital radio services such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, and Sirius, which provide a wide range of musical stations and allow users to listen to databases of millions of songs on demand.
  • Video: Many digital media outlets are visual, from streaming movie and television services such as Netflix to virtual reality surgical simulators used in medical institutions. One of the biggest players in visual digital media is YouTube, which hosts billions of videos. Launched in 2005, the website is one of the most popular destinations on the web.
  • Social media: Social media includes sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat, which enable their users to interact with one another through text posts, photographs, and videos, leaving “likes” and comments to create conversations around pop culture, sports, news, politics, and the daily events of users’ lives.
  • Advertising: Advertisers have made their way into the digital media landscape, taking advantage of marketing partnerships and advertising space wherever possible. The internet has moved away from the use of pop-up and autoplay ads, which flooded early websites and drove away visitors. Instead, advertisers look toward native content and other methods of keeping consumers invested without overselling their product.
  • News, literature, and more: Traditionally, people consumed text via books, print newspapers, magazines, and the like. Even though digital media has proliferated, the desire for those kinds of reading experiences has endured. Research from the Pew Research Center indicates that 38% of adults in the U.S. read news online. The proliferation of literary websites, the popularity of resources like Wikipedia, and the rise of e-readers like the Kindle all further underline the continued importance of written work in digital media.

Examples of Digital Media

Digital media encompasses a wide array of websites, tech devices, and platforms. You may be aware of some uses of digital media, but the fact is that digital media influences many industries and has opened a range of avenues for people to make a living and utilize their talents in different ways.

Prior to digital technology, surgeons and other medical professionals had to rely on clunky simulators, videos, or cadavers to practice new surgeries, which made it difficult to perfect certain operations and increased complications when they were performed on living patients. Digital technology has introduced all sorts of new tools into the surgical suite, allowing doctors to better practice and perform such procedures, thus increasing patient safety and reducing mistakes while lowering costs. Modern-day surgeons practice using advanced virtual reality (VR) systems, working through different scenarios with digital versions of the same miniature cameras and sensors they’ll rely on during an actual surgery.

Digital media has also led to entirely new careers. Websites such as Twitch allow people to stream their daily lives, and people can pay to subscribe to individual channels to watch what interests them. Twitch streamers include video gamers, musicians, social influencers, and even those who just stream their daily activities, such as going to the store, cooking dinner, or cleaning the house. Users from all different walks of life expose subscribers to different cultures and lifestyles. Digital media professionals can also take advantage of easily obtainable technology such as cellphones and open-source coding to film their own shows, movies, or podcasts and stream them at little or no cost, creating greater equity in media. These are just a few examples of digital media, though the market for such products is expanding, and there are more applications every year.

Major Digital Media Companies

As the digital world has taken over the modern business landscape, some of the most valuable companies in the world are in the tech sphere. Many of these companies have diverse interests and divisions, including in various forms of digital media and related ventures. As such, the top digital media companies are among the largest corporations on Earth.

  • Google, founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, started as a revolutionary new search engine, which spurred the growth of one of the world’s most valuable brands (worth $309 billion in 2019, according to statistics reported by CNBC). Google has become a massive, multinational technology company, developing all things internet-related, including its own web browser (Chrome), laptops (Chromebooks), smart glasses, and internet television streams (Chromecast). In 2015, Google announced that it was forming the parent company Alphabet to run the organization’s diverse departments with Google existing as a subsidiary.
  • Netflix launched in 1997 as an online-based movie rental service, where people could order DVDs and have them delivered to their home. Customers made their wish list of films, and Netflix sent them DVDs from the list. Users could keep DVDs as long as they wanted, receiving the next movie on their list upon return of the first. Netflix has since grown from third-party movie distributor to online streaming giant, with over 150 million subscribers paying for a mix of television, movies, and original content. The brand has launched pop culture sensations such as “Orange Is the New Black,” “Stranger Things,” and “BoJack Horseman.”
  • Apple has grown from a niche computer company with elegant marketing into one of the dominant technology forces on the planet. Founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976, Apple spent the first quarter-century of its existence as a cutting-edge though struggling computer company, with a few impressive products that never quite caught on. Then, with the introduction of the iMac in 1998, followed by the iPod three years later, marketed with Jobs’s brilliant strategies driving intrigue and demand, Apple moved to the forefront of the gadget market. In the years since, products such as the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch have kept Apple going strong. Millions of Americans consume large amounts of digital media each day through their Apple products, such as iTunes and Apple TV.
  • Facebook and Twitter are two of the biggest social media websites. Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok also have substantial user bases in the hundreds of millions or more. According to a 2018 Pew Research Survey, 75% of all U.S. adults use YouTube and 68% use Facebook. Over 94% of 18- to 24-year-olds use YouTube, and 80% of them use Facebook. Major players in the business world own these brands. For example, Facebook owns Instagram and other platforms such as WhatsApp. Additionally, Google owns multiple web ventures including YouTube. As generations that grew up with social media get older and new users come of age, the number of people on these platforms will likely continue to grow.
  • Amazon remains a digital commerce titan, with an enormous presence in the digital media sphere. The company, in fact, is one of the world’s largest by market value according to Investopedia. From Amazon Prime and its accompanying streaming service to personal assistants, cloud service, and digital advertising, the company has an expansive presence online. This is reflected in its growth, with revenues tripling between 2017 and 2018, from $117.9 billion to $232.9 billion.

Digital Media Jobs and Salaries

Digital media includes a wide range of platforms, products, and industries. As such, the job market and earning potential for digital media careers varies based on industry, location, work experience, and education, but in general, the outlook is strong. Many digital media jobs, including those below, exist in various industries, including in the public and private sectors. As such, careers in digital media provide the opportunity to work in all sorts of different environments.

Graphic Designer

Jobs in digital media include many graphic design positions. Graphic designers create digital illustrations that convey information, from company logos to movie posters and much more. They use sketch pads, computers, tablets, and other devices to create their work. They utilize different fonts, colors, photographs, shapes, and aesthetic elements along the way. Those in graphic design work with clients to discern what they’re looking for, then go through a design process where they develop several options and tweak their ideas to fit the client’s needs.

There were 290,100 graphic designers working in the U.S. as of May 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They earned a median annual salary of $50,370, with those in the bottom 10% of earners making under $29,610 and those in the top 10% earning more than $85,760 each year. By industry, the median annual salary for this position can range from $40,170 (printing and related support activities) to $51,380 (advertising, public relations, and related services). The BLS expects the job market to grow 3% between 2018 and 2028, which equates to 8,800 new jobs.

Web Developer

Web design specialists use their graphic design skills to create websites and other web-based applications. They possess some knowledge of programming and coding, in languages such as CSS, HTML, or Java. Web developers help companies update their websites or design new sites from scratch, using existing templates or frameworks such as WordPress or Squarespace. They make sure websites look good on different devices while also remaining functional.

According to the BLS, there were 160,500 web developers working in the United States as of May 2018, making a median annual income of $69,430. The BLS has high expectations for the job market for web developers, expecting it to grow by 20,900 jobs between 2018 and 2028, at a rate of 13%. Publishing industries ($75,360) and computer systems design firms ($68,670) had the highest median annual salaries.

Digital Media Specialist

Digital media specialists fill a vital role in the digital media job market. These versatile media professionals are able to perform a number of tasks, combining various skills. Digital media specialists can work in social media, where they use graphic design skills to assist companies with their branding and voice. They may also use on-camera and writing skills, as well as video or audio editing abilities to create packages for use in digital marketing campaigns. Different projects require different tasks and abilities, and digital media specialists can fill any number of them.

According to statistics from PayScale, the median average salary for digital media specialists was $34,000 annually as of December 2019. While the BLS doesn’t keep specific data on digital media specialists, reports from web marketing news outlets such as Social Media Today indicate that global online ad spending continued to rise significantly in 2019 (4% worldwide), with total spending set to reach $329 billion by 2021, which will account for 49% of all ad spending. These trends suggest favorable job growth in digital media careers.

How to Land Digital Media Internships

Working in all types of media, including digital media, means taking advantage of networking, which can lead to further opportunities down the line. Even at the high school level, students can begin interacting with digital media –– opening social media profiles, making connections, and even interning or creating digital content. But it’s in college that networking really starts to gain importance, as students start to figure out where they want to go with their digital media career. One common way for students to gain experience and valuable contacts in the industry is through internships.

Internships in digital media can take place over the summer, during a single semester, or throughout an entire school year. They might be in large office settings, or they may involve work in the community. The further along students are in their undergraduate career and the more skills they possess, the more they’ll be able to do in their internships.

Before beginning a digital media internship, there are several skills that are valuable for students to develop. Applicants should be confident interviewees, even without prior experience, demonstrating a willingness to learn and grow as they contribute. They should have solid writing abilities and demonstrate some skill in photography, graphic design, website design, or social media. During the course of an internship, students can develop other marketable skills such as storytelling, managing relationships with clients, drafting copy, content programming, and much more.

Some digital media internships pay, and some do not. While there is a push within media industries for paid internships, some businesses –– especially smaller companies –– are unable to pay their interns. When considering any internship, it is wise to consider the work experience to be gained, and what impact the internship will have on performing real work duties in the future.

Explore Digital Media with Maryville University

What is digital media? It is expansive and increasingly pervasive, and it isn’t going anywhere. Digital technology will only continue to further its place in society, with home assistants such as Alexa and Siri leading the next generation of artificial intelligence gadgets and devices. In the near future, augmented reality devices such as headsets, heads-up displays, and even holographic technology will likely further digitize our daily lives.

Careers in digital media begin with the right undergraduate degree, which develops a foundation of skills and knowledge that positions graduates to begin any number of career paths. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Media — with courses in marketing and digital media, design theory, UX/UI design, social media, and more — can prepare you to enter this multifaceted industry and offer vital visual communication strategies to businesses of all kinds.

Recommended Reading

Innovative Design Careers: How to Become a UX Designer

6 Exciting Digital Media Degree Jobs


The Balance Careers, “Important Digital Media Skills That Employers Value”

CNBC, “Amazon Beats Apple and Google to Become the World’s Most Valuable Brand”

CNN, Google Fast Facts

Houston Chronicle, “Careers in Digital Media”

HowStuffWorks, “Can You Explain the Basic Difference Between Analog and Digital Technology?”

Interesting Engineering, “The Fascinating History of Netflix”

Investopedia, “How Amazon Makes Money”

Mashable, “What Companies Want in a Social Media Intern”

Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry, “The Future of (Digital) Surgery”

Netflix Investors, Company Profile

PayScale, Digital Media Specialist

Pew Research Center, How Americans Get Their News

Pew Research Center, Social Media Use in 2018

Simplicable, “14 Examples of Digital Media”

Social Media Today, “2019 Key Digital Marketing Growth Stats”

Tech Funnel, “Defining Traditional Media Today”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Graphic Designers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Web Developers

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