Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Decline and Near Fall of the Mainstream Media Empire




Finally confirming a trend that many have long noted, the Los Angeles Times on Monday concluded that yes, more people now get their news from the internet than from newspapers. To bloggers and purveyors of New Media alike, this should come as no surprise whatsoever. Prior to this announcement, newspapers often closely guarded inside secrets like declining circulation, decreases in advertising revenue, forced buy-outs within individual papers, and an overall drop in quality of reporting. I suppose that now, even mulish, intractable newspapers are having to concede that the handwriting has been on the wall for years.

The Times article references a Pew Research Center report titled State of the New Media 2011. Perhaps the most interesting conclusion drawn from this report is one that describes the turbulence in the industry itself, and the influential role of the blogosphere within it.


Beneath all this, however, a more fundamental challenge to journalism became clearer in the last year. The biggest issue ahead may not be lack of audience or even lack of new revenue experiments. It may be that in the digital realm the news industry is no longer in control of its own destiny.(Italics mine)

News organizations -- old and new -- still produce most of the content audiences consume. But each technological advance has added a new layer of complexity -- and a new set of players -- in connecting that content to consumers and advertisers.


With established chain of command and the information gathering process turned upside down, the mainstream movers and shakers have had to increasing rely on blogs and aggregators to best channel a message. Some are still reluctant to concede the need for cooperation, while other have long accepted that survival is much more important. The report notes that most areas of print media have begun to return to solvency, with the notable exception of print dailies. If these are to survive, they will have to concede that up-to-date information about current events can be updated in seconds online, whereas a newspaper is already old news by the time it is printed. As the report points out, this is a problem that has confounded newspaper publishers for fifteen years, and they still have formulated no satisfactory solution.

Only television surpasses the internet when it comes down to news dispersal and viewership. And this, too, shows evidence of a generational divide that is quickly closing. The report concludes that the media is growing younger and more innovative, primarily because it has no choice not to be. Unlike older models, now technology is the engine driving all of this. Once upon a time, the news media were the kingmakers. Now, technological advances like Google, Facebook, and Twitter set the pace and continue to complicate an already complex, confusing, and fragmented media landscape. Future innovations are sure to be developed and instituted with time, which will muddy the waters even more.


The result is a news ecology full of experimentation and excitement, but also one that is uneven, has uncertain financial underpinning and some clear holes in coverage. Even in Seattle, one of the most vibrant places for new media, "some vitally important stories are less likely to be covered," said Diane Douglas who runs a local civic group and considers the decentralization of media voices a healthy change. "It's very frightening to think of those gaps and all the more insidious because you don't know what you don't know." Some also worry that with lower pay, more demands for speed, less training, and more volunteer work, there is a general devaluing and even what scholar Robert Picard has called a "de-skilling" of the profession.


On the subject of blind spots in coverage, blogs and aggregators have been serving as seeing eye dogs for the conventional media for a while. Trends, for example, tend to catch fire online more quickly, usually faster than the mainstream media's ability to pick up on them. Coverage gaps are inevitable in a world far more interconnected than it ever has been before. While it is true to some extent that industry decline decreases reporting quality, this overlooks the fact that many bloggers and those in the independent media produce work along the same lines as its formally high standards. What is needed now is a means of showcasing the work of those outside the mainstream, particularly the massive number of commentators and columnists who are more than competent in what they do. Technology seeks and has sought to do this, but with so much fragmentation, sometimes the process can be not unlike looking for a needle in a haystack. With time, this issue may be solved, though some fear increased fragmentation, not less of it.


If anything, the metrics of online news have become more confused, not less. Many believe that the economics of the web, and particularly online news, cannot really progress until the industry settles on how to measure audience. There is no consensus on what is the most useful measure of online traffic. Different rating agencies do not even agree on how to define a "unique visitor." Does that denote different people or does the same person visiting a site from different computers get counted more than once? The numbers from one top rating agency, comScore, are in some cases double and even triple those of another, Nielsen. More audience research data exist about each user than ever before. Yet in addition to confusion about what it means, it is almost impossible get a full sense of consumer behavior -- across sites, platforms, and devices. That leaves potential advertisers at a loss about how to connect the dots.


Those of us who have our own private blogs know this all too well. Speaking about myself, personally, I have no clue how to even conservatively estimate exactly how many people read me on a daily basis. Daily Kos does not provide me the ability to see hit count on my diaries. My own website tracker only lists those who directly access my page, leaving out those who have included me on Google Reader, Technorati, or some related system. Should I cross-post a particular essay to another site, as I often do, I am rarely granted the ability to really be able to judge exact readership numbers. So, instead, groping about in the dark, noticing only the most obvious trends has to suffice. Imagine if I were a corporation or agency trying to develop a strategy to produce a steady stream of revenue! Anarchic wildernesses are fine for pioneers clearing underbrush, but they're not the most financially reliable of environments.

An additional metric may surprise you.

The bailout of the car industry helped with the media's modest recovery in 2010. One overlooked dimension in the year past: A key source of renewed revenue in news in 2010 was the recovery in the car industry, aided by the decision to lend federal money to save U.S. carmakers. Auto advertising jumped 77% in local television, 22% in radio and 17% in magazines. The other benefactor of the news industry, say experts, was the U.S. Supreme Court: Its Citizens United decision allowing corporations and unions to buy political ads for candidates helped boost political advertising spent on local television to an estimated $2.2 billion, a new high for a midterm campaign year.


This, then, is a bit of a mixed bag. Regardless of your position on the bailout of the auto industry or the mainstream media, it did also help revive the latter somewhat. However, inundating the American people with car commercials for a time can only go so far, particularly if it causes decreased intelligence skills and cognitive ability. And as unpopular as is the Citizens United decision with certain segments of the electorate, it did at least prop up the mainstream media for a time. Taking ideologically pure position statements is a laudable sentiment, but on occasion one has to bargain with the devil. It's a popular sentiment to speak out against conventional media, but our fates seem to be increasingly intertwined. They certainly need us, and we need them too, more than we might think. This partnership of convenience might become a long-term marriage, or quickly end in divorce, but for the time being, we're both at the altar.

1 comment:

Steve Ballmer said...

Good blog my friend!