Stop the Presses?

Stop the Presses?

It’s an obvious statement, but the way that we follow the news is changing. Everyone can see this is happening, but for many who work in the traditional media the question is what to do about it. What does it mean for the media whose real purpose (if they want to pay the bills) is to deliver corporate advertising messages to the public. The more important question is: What does this mean for our democracy if the information we use to make our informed decisions is varied and unique to the user? It’s a question we will all need to consider, debate and act on in the coming years.

At first, many pundits and scholars argued that the decline in the use of traditional media meant that interest in news has waned (Much of this discussion also fallls along stereotypes that the older generations were the better news consumers. While there is plenty of data supporting such claims about traditional media outlets, the truth of such a statement is still in question when new media is considered). I believe there is still a great interest in news. In fact, my own position  has changed in recent years: I believe there might even be more involvement with the news, particularly with the advent of blogging.

With regard to traditional media usage, fewer people are consuming it. In an article in last Tuesday’s New York Times, reporter Eric Dash writes about the current state of newspaper circulation. "The industry reported yesterday a 1.9 percent drop in daily circulation, and a 2.5 percent decline on Sundays, over the last six months, compared with the period a year ago," writes Dash. "The weak numbers for 814 daily newspapers, reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, represent the largest circulation losses for the industry in more than a decade, and indicate an acceleration of the decline."

John Morton, an industry analyst, predicted in Dash’s story that the trend started long before the Internet came on the scene. "I don’t see any bright spots and I don’t see any reasonable expectation this is going to change anytime soon," he said. Colby Atwood, a media analyst for Borrell Associates hit the aforementioned culprits in his quote in the article: "The underlying forces at work have not changed. That young people aren’t reading newspapers is a pretty fatal formula for any business. If all your customers are dying off, you’ve got to be concerned, and that’s what is happening in the newspaper industry."

According to Dash’s reporting, circulation is down everywhere: "The Los Angeles Times, owned by Tribune, reported daily circulation fell 6.5 percent, to 907,997, and Sunday circulation fell 7.9 percent. The Chicago Tribune said its average weekday circulation fell 6.9 percent, to 573,743, and Sunday fell 4.7 percent, to 953,815. The Dallas Morning News, which is owned by the Belo Corporation and which also had a circulation scandal, did not report numbers but said it expected circulation to fall 9 percent daily, and 13 percent on Sunday." Interestingly, circulation  for papers with national circulation were actually up a bit, according to the latest reports. This group included The New York Times.

A report issued by the Carnegie Corporation of New York reaches many of the same conclusions held by popular wisdom. "In short, the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news."

At the Web site, you can find more information about the research. In a summary of the research, Merill Brown writes on the Web site, "Clearly, young people don’t want to rely on the morning paper on their doorstep or the dinnertime newscast for up-to-date information; in fact, they—as well as others—want their news on demand, when it works for them. And, say many experts, in this new world of journalism, young people want a personal level of engagement and want those presenting the news to them to be transparent in their assumptions, biases and history."

The study was commissioned in May 2004, to examine how people ages 18-34 use the news. What they found makes perfect sense on some levels. "For news professionals coming out of the traditions of conventional national and local journalism, fields long influenced by national news organizations and dominant local broadcasting and print media, the revolution in how individuals relate to the news is often viewed as threatening. For digital media professionals, members of the blogging community and other participants in the new media wave, these trends are, conversely, considered liberating and indications that an “old media” oligopoly is being supplemented, if not necessarily replaced, by new forms of journalism created by freelancers and interested members of the public without conventional training."

According the the Carnegie Research, the rate of traditional media decline is also accelerating: "From 1972 to 1998, the percentage of people age 30-to-39 who read a paper every day dropped from 73 to 30 percent. And in just the years between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds who say they read yesterday’s newspaper dropped by 14 percent, according to the Newspaper Association of America."

Quoted in the Carnegie study: “Young people are more curious than ever but define news on their own terms,” says Jeff Jarvis, who is president of Advance.net, a unit of Advance Publications, and who publishes a widely read blog, Buzzmachine.com. “They get news where they want it, when they want it. Media is about control now. We used to wait for the news to come to us. Now news waits for us to come to it. That’s their expectation. We get news on cable and on the Internet any time, any place."

This is a fascinating study. Not only will this shift to alternate technology and media continue, it will accelerate. Not only will the marketability of traditional media come under continued scrutiny, but "the dramatic shift in how young people access the news raises a question about how democracy and the flow of information will interact in the years ahead," writes Brown.

Of course, traditional media denies such a trend is as bad as everyone in cyberspace makes it out to be. New York Times reporter Katherine Seelye wrote last week that "Print insists It’s Here to Stay." The Newspaper Association of America has hired some advertising big guns (as did the Magazine Publishers of America) to get the message out: We are not going anywhere.

"The medium is very strong," said John Kimball, chief marketing officer of the newspaper association. "There are lots of ads in the papers, and not because those people think they’re making a charitable contribution. They’re investing in the medium because it’s delivering results."

The data from the Times’ story: "Of the $141 billion spent on all forms of advertising in 2004, about 17 percent went to magazines, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Newspapers captured 20 percent of that, network television 18 percent, cable television 12 percent and the Internet 6 percent. But the newspaper share was down, the magazine share was flat and the Internet was growing fast. Advertising Age predicted last week that the combined advertising revenue of Google and Yahoo this year would rival those of the big three television networks, marking what it called a "watershed moment" in the evolution of the Internet."

What such a watershed moment means for the market is clear. Perhaps the interest in news remains. Maybe the consumers for such news haven’t died off, but simply migrated away from daily ink and paper. I am among that group. I wouldn’t be counted among a single circulation figure aside from random newstand sales. Yet, I read three newspapers every day online. Already the advice given to the newpapers by the marketing professionals reflects this trend. According to Seelye’s reporting, they have been told to stop calling their product a newspaper, but rather the "newspaper business."

What this watershed moment means for democracy is another story. How traditional media has responded to its predicament has further eroded the public’s trust, and has played into the hands of those wishing to undermine traditional media’s credibility for political purposes. At the same time its audience began to disappear or migrate to other outlets, media companies began demanding huge returns on its investment. News organizations’ expenses were slashed in search of corporate profits. As a result, major news organizations (particularly television) went for the cheap and easy in order to secure market share. It went for what I dub single-story journalism: OJ, Diana, today’s Runaway Bride–stories where the cast of characters has been established, and no expensive newsgather is required. While good for the short-term, such stories have proven disastrous over the long-haul. We can see its effects. Yet, the major news media has no choice. It can’t take a risk on expensive in-depth news in the hopes of finding or luring an audience when its structure has changed to essentially operate as an entertainment division.

On a third front, justifiably or not, conservative pundits and strategists siezed the opportunity in the 1990s to brand most major media with a "liberal bias" repeating the phrase enough that it simply becomes accepted without debate in many circles. While the Internet benefits from a demographic in search of the latest news on  demand, it also benefits from those looking for a break from the so-called "liberal media" to news with a spin of its own. These three perspectives about traditional media (it’s bad, it’s biased, it’s old technolgy) create a perfect storm. Any one of these problems could be solved if they were all that plagued the media. Taken together … it’s soon going to be a different world.

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