No new media triumphalism here…


Financial turmoil – whichever way you look at it!, originally uploaded by canonsnapper.

No question, a bad week for some traditional media heavyweights:

It’s been an especially rotten few days for people who type on deadline. On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor announced that, after a century, it would cease publishing a weekday paper. Time Inc., the Olympian home of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, announced that it was cutting 600 jobs and reorganizing its staff. And Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, compounded the grimness by announcing it was laying off 10 percent of its work force — up to 3,000 people.

Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it.

It goes on. The day before, the Tribune Company had declared that it would reduce the newsroom of The Los Angeles Times by 75 more people, leaving it approximately half the size it was just seven years ago.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, the 15th-largest paper in the country, which was threatened with closing, will apparently survive, but only after it was announced that the editorial staff would be reduced by 40 percent.

And two weeks ago, TV Guide, one of the famous brand names in magazines, was sold for one dollar, less than the price of a single copy.

And the above article from the New York Times doesn’t even mention its own problems, which are pretty much the story across the entire industry.

There does not seem to be much mystery or even debate on what the problems facing the news business might be… Sites like Craigslist cut the bottom out of the lucrative classified ads moneypot almost instantly. Nobody in the industry seemed to have seen Craigslist coming. People are consuming their news in new media forms, and old media is having trouble making these channels pay out the way the old print-object-to-sales models did… And the army of bloggers have made the “MSM” seem somehow out of step in an editorial sense as well, somehow less important, less relevant.

It’s not just privately held old-school newspapers that are in crisis. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC are both supported by public funding, and both have made aggressive and (in my judgment) progressive steps to adjust their practices to the new media reality. Yet the CBC’s latest attempt to make its radio programming relevant has prompted a backlash from its core audience (and while I am less-opposed personally, I will say that accidentally listening to Tonic was a smooth jazz nightmare from which I feared I would never awaken). These changes have resulted in precious little love from the Canadian hipster digerati (a revolutionary movement with a population well into triple digits). The recent Brand-Ross phone row (disclosure: my son Harry and I maintain a private Manuel from Fawlty Towers fan club) — with the revelations of wild money paid out for expensive shock jocks working so very hard for cheap laughs — suggests nothing so clearly as a certain desperation all round: “There has been a trend in broadcasting to promote marketing figures to run channels and large editorial departments – the thinking goes, at least partly, that marketing skills are needed to “punch through” and have impact in our digital age. These figures, however, are left exposed when questions of editorial judgment arise.”

These convulsions might provoke some smug celebration from some blogvangelists, but not me. For one, I see little in new media prepared to replace the kind of detailed investigative reporting that old media is already abandoning as a cost-saving measure. And I see little reason not to expect similar forms of unexpected competition and crises of legitimacy in the future for higher education. Such crises might hit the academy in a nearer-term future than even those of us with apocalyptic temperaments might expect…

11 thoughts on “No new media triumphalism here…

  1. Great post, and pretty much spot-on. The CBC reference missed the one bit where they are getting it right online: CBC Radio 3. Their “back catalog” of bands and music on New Music Canada (not integrated very well, unfortunately) is unbelievable, and it feels like what they’re doing with blogs and podcasts is resonating with folks like me. I’m not sure how’d you’d measure that success, it’s worth noting.

  2. Just one minor note… You describe Brand and Ross as “expensive shock jocks working so very hard for cheap laughs.” I don’t know about Brand, but Ross is a bloody genius.

    And the furore about this incident does have to do with the internet, but not in the way you suggest… the media storm has been whipped up on the net. The program itself attracted exactly two complaints when it was first broadcast.

    And as for the object of all the fuss. Well, as Blood and Treasure says about Georgina Baillie, aka Volupta if it were me I’d be a little upset about some of my granddaughter’s career choices.

    Just my 2c.

  3. It’s tragic that so many jobs are being cut…but moreso because newspapers just don’t seem to understand how the world is changing. They try to put more adspace on their sites and cut staff, but they aren’t looking at how demand for news is changing.

  4. Jeremy, I might not have been clear, I think the CBC has made reasonable attempts to use digital media effectively, and I agree that Radio 3 is doing some cool things. And some of the BBC’s work with digital media can only be described as ground-breaking (I wish more of it was accessible to people outside the UK).

    Jon, I was a bit worried that I was mentioning the affair with insufficient information, and maybe that’s the case here. I have enjoyed some of Russell Brand’s stuff, and would be interested in recommendations on what to check out to get a sense of Ross. Sounds like the nasty war between Daily Mail and Brand was a big factor here.

    Having said that, I listened to the audio of those calls, and I stand by the characterization of Ross/Brand flailing desperately for laughs – in those clips, at least, they sound like British versions of the Morning Zoo Crews that litter the American airwaves.

  5. I think your analysis may be missing the most obvious reason for the slump:

    Tradidional media are committing suicide by auctioning off their credibility and racing for the lowest common quality denominator.

    It seems that traditional media are pushing their audience away as much, or perhaps more, than new media are pulling them.

  6. > These convulsions might provoke some smug celebration from some blogvangelists, but not me. For one, I see little in new media prepared to replace the kind of detailed investigative reporting…

    My own view is a bit different. From where I sit, traditional media has long since ceased to serve the function of reporting and investigating. For at least the last two decades, it has served mostly as a means or propaganda, representing the voice of special (monied) interests, and not doing anything that would shake their hold on power.

    Time and time again they would simply propagate the truism of the day – Iraq has WMDs, housing prices will always go up, the stock market is a good place for your retirement savings, etc. We have now seen the paucity of such reporting, and I won’t regret seeing these agents of considerable damage meet their demise.

  7. There are so many factors as to why traditional media “suddenly” find themselves in this position. For me, the overarching reasons are arrogance and shortsightedness.

    Traditional media have no one but themselves to blame for their downfall. This has been coming for a long time and they failed to heed the warnings.

    I worked in the industry from the late 80’s until 2000 and none of the companies I worked for took the internet seriously, despite warnings from many that this internet thing might just change a couple things.

    It also took many media players an awful long time to wake up to the fact that their product is information and not the distribution channel. My personal illustration of this was bearing witness to the gutting of newsrooms in the mid and late 90’s and the reliance (by broadcasters especially) on central news agencies and wire services. Rip and read newscasts became the norm, especially in smaller markets. Most media outlets stopped producing their core product – information – and began outsourcing it to Reuters and the Associated/Canadian Press. Instead they bolstered their sales forces and concentrated on maximizing ad revenues. And then Craigslist/Adsense came in and cut them off at the knees.

    When the retrospective on the death of traditional media is created, arrogance and shortsightedness will be central themes in the story.

    That said, I don’t write them off. For a lot of people, many traditional media outlets still have remnants of that elusive substance called credibility left. If they can wake up and shake off their collective Nancy Grace’s then I think they still have a surprise or two left in their arsenal.

  8. niblettes, Stephen, Clint – I don’t disagree with your points. My concern is a) I do not see an emerging “new media” replacement for the decent investigative work that is still being done (less and less of it all the time, I admit). Certainly the blogosphere generates plenty of opinion, some analysis and critique – but I don’t see it putting out much detailed investigative reporting.

    And the primary worry I have in this post is that maybe in a few years someone will say of higher ed that we “have no one but themselves to blame for their downfall. This has been coming for a long time and they failed to heed the warnings.”

  9. I think your worry about the analogy between traditional media and higher education is right on.

    I have a master’s degree from one of the best schools in the world – and it hurts me to admit it, I don’t think it delivered much value. Indeed I likely would have learned as much, if not more, had I stuck with just my undergrad and kept working for those two yeas.

    Dropping $50,000 and two years of life is an incredible sacrifice. To ask someone to make such a sacrifice you really need to have a solid value proposition, one you can consistently deliver, and one that can’t be easily had anywhere else.

    In my experience, higher education’s value proposition is weakly defined, inconsistently executed, and can often be acquired from other sources at a fraction of the cost (in time, money and effort). Sounds like the situation facing traditional media, no?

    Higher education institutions leave so much up to the individual student’s drive, determination and luck to get an education that one has to wonder if the institution itself is even necessary–other than to provide buildings where lots of smart people can bump into each other.

    I’m not really as down on higher education as I sound here. Still, I think the systems is flawed in many of the same ways traditional media is flawed, and without change will likely and deservedly suffer a similar fate (just lot more slowly). Students I think are on the verge of being forced to find education solutions that offer better cost-benefit ratios.

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