Friday, August 07, 2009
The Media's Slow Burn Out
A year or so ago, I began to notice that there was something massively wrong with the picture when viewing the news report of one of my local affiliates. Thinking at first it must be me, I even contemplated adjusting my dial, despite years of being warned that I needn't do such a thing. What had previously been a professionally run, highly competent broadcast was teeming with numerous flaws. They were so painfully frequent that the product looked like it belonged to a high school mass communications class instead of a well-run organization of adults. Rudimentary elements like routine coordination between each anchor, seamless video editing of investigative reports, and maintenance of a proper and consistent audio volume were nowhere to be found.
Even the anchors couldn't disguise their frustration and weariness. Underneath the fake smiles and forced small talk was the specter of anger. The effect produced was surreal and for a moment I felt perhaps I must be watching a movie about a dysfunctional television station. One didn't have to read the headlines and balance sheets to recognize that something was going very, very wrong underneath the surface. At the time, I didn't realize just how dire the situation was, but when read the substantive facts and financial statements which confirmed my initial suspicions, I was shocked to learn that the problem stretched far deeper than I could have ever dreamed. Recently, the owner of one station has filed for bankruptcy and another one has been forced to eliminate some news broadcasts altogether and and in so doing lay off those assigned to it.
In reading stories like these, I don't ever forget that human beings are are the ones suffering the most. I might cheer for the destruction of the greedy corporations now in danger of losing their shirt, but I never forget the people who chose to make their living from it. For example, my first cousin worked for years as an news anchorwoman and roving reporter at several small cities in Alabama and one in Pennsylvania. When, some five years ago, soft news and gossip began to replace more substantive coverage, she was so discouraged by the direction the media was headed that she got out of the field altogether. Though she was not the only person to do so (and certainly will not be the last), she may have been one of the first to abandon ship.
I have to say that the decision shocked me because I recognized that she was setting aside her life's chosen vocation and with it years of preparation. She was effectively scrapping a hard-fought job in an industry that had insisted she sacrifice mightily for the privilege. She had enrolled and receive a Master's degree in Communications from a very prestigious college. She had padded her resume and increased her knowledge of the trade by taking a job as an intern at a local television station, one that required her to awaken five mornings a week at the unholy hour of three o'clock in the morning. After years as a field reporter, she was offered, and accepted a job as a anchor, even though this meant she needed to resume the practice of rising at 3:00 am. And even after all of this, to her credit, she recognized big trouble on the way and had no serious qualms in leaving it all behind.
Naturally, local television news isn't the only major outlet suffering mightily. Like so many other fields, the recession has only exacerbated trends that were already in place. My local newspaper is being forced to reduce salaries five percent to eight percent and after months of assuring employees to the contrary, is going to begin offering buyouts to those who were with the paper for at least five years. Local satellite bureaus devoted to the news of each individual municipality in the metro area will close by the end of the summer, likely shrinking the size of an already reduced daily edition. The trend also extends to magazines and periodicals who have increasing seen their readership embrace online news and online editions.
Increasingly, as many have noted, the mainstream media has tried to emulate New Media purveyors and the blogsophere by either attempting to formulate its own copycat edition, with notably minimal success, or it has shamelessly poached ideas in a desperate effort to stem the bleeding. I've actually heard some commentators mention quite cavalierly that the conventional media is on its last legs and that the blogosphere will spring up to take its place. Though I appreciate the thoroughly Democratic spirit of such a sentiment, I know it's highly unlikely to occur. There will always be a need for the so-called professional media and, to modify a quote by Voltaire, even if the media did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. This grasping about in the dark will eventually hit upon a niche and soon enough the big boys will find a way to reinvent themselves by way of New Media. When the MSM's offerings transition to fully electronic incarnations that require monthly fees to access and when it becomes highly covetous of its own ideas, then we'll be right back to the status quo ante bellum. The internet is much like the Wild West right now and those who appreciate the anarchic spirit of the medium recognize fully that with time, some will try to limit its scope and in so doing place content regulation in place.
In the meantime, however, enjoy this admittedly odd period in American history. In it, one can have the satisfaction of seeing the Fourth Estate collectively gasping for breath like a fish out of water. This might be the end of conventional or old media, but something new will sprout up in its place. Sooner, rather than later, it will rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes because there is too much financial incentive, too many established power brokers, too many people willing to compromise their true opinions for the sake of money, and too many well-trod paths that lead from reporter's desk to positions of influence and back. Yet, I believe that there will always be a role for the blogosphere to be a regulatory force upon these impulses and in that respect we ought to take the time now, when we have it, to not squander the chance to cement our place as the gatekeepers of the gatekeepers.