It’s been a bad year for what lots of folks are now calling “heritage media,” aka broadcast radio and television, plus newspapers and magazines. Audiences are down and the information-gathering apparatus that once was so useful to compile fat sheaths of classified advertising no longer represent competitive advantage, or even particularly rare infrastructure, in the Internet age. Less money is therefore coming through the door.
But I am not entirely pessimistic about their future – or at least the future of newspapers. In fact, I agree with one R. Murdoch, once of Adelaide, that journalism as we know it will persist, but probably won’t come delivered on sheets of dead tree for much longer.
I agree that journalism will persist because wherever I go, I hear ordinary, everyday people refer to quality journalism with a mixture of reverence and affection. It’s usually expressed in their citation of an article from a quality publication as validation of their personal or commercial world view. The mention of a masthead carries a lot of weight into a real-world conversation, buttressing an argument with third party credibility.
I don’t hear this affection with reference to news. No-one says “gosh, that news story was great” any more . Not to me, anyway. They talk about great vision they see somewhere, or the general tone of commentary and information filtering in from social media.
The lack of impact of a scoop these days is something I need to think more about. My early inclination is to say that their lack of impact comes from their immediate diffusion and paraphrasing all over the Net and other heritage media, before much of audience which follows the outlet that breaks the news has encountered the stoy . This makes it harder for an outlet to attract readers solely on the basis of its news-breaking abilities.
The impact of social media needs more analysis, too. But I think the rise of citizen journalism has made conventional reporting precarious and/or obsolete. Think about the Mumbai attacks. Mainstream journos were not in the thick of the action and not able to offer much insight. For any information on what it felt to be on the ground, Twitter was the place to be. Kerry Packer used to say, apparently, that TV was the medium of the now. Now, citizen journalism is the medium of the now.
If scoops are no longer the audience attractors that made a masthead compelling and mainstream media can no longer compete with citizen journalism on speed and insightfulness, why be optimistic about journalism?
Because I think heritage media is yet to put technology to work to give journalists the tools to tell stories in the way audiences clearly like, but in the timeframes audiences now demand. The affection for media I detect is generally expressed as fondness for magazines or other outlets that have the time to assemble comprehensive overviews of a subject, or provide really good analysis of recent events.
I think that if heritage media can harness context and technology to speed up the production of context-driven, rather than reporting-drive, content, then journalism will retain the affection many feel for it.
This prediction assumes that media becomes more trustworthy. At present, media’s online efforts are very directed at titillation. Hence more and more celebrities, stories that skew towards the ongoing over-represented “webiness” of the online audience, or endless stories that are obviously analytics-driven, such as the endless stream of stories this year about every loose screw on Qantas aircraft.
This stuff obviously rates. But so do A Current Affair and Today Tonight. New Idea always outsold The Bulletin. To win back the folks leaving heritage media for other sources of information, the lure of the big hit count has to be ignored. Publishers have to have the guts to sell the quality of their audiences over the size of their audiences. They need to think about asking readers to pay for information they value in more explicit ways, rather than hiding the cost of it in beer and soap powder at the supermarket.
Commentary also needs to change. Personality-driven commentary bringing analysis from pre-ordained points of view (think Miranda Divine) is entertaining. It seldom helps me to understand the world I live in any better.
So … how can this all happen? Well … much of this is a wishlist compiled by someone who works on the fringes of big media and is therefore spouting off. But some of it, I am living. I can say from experience that small, well-targeted media can succeed.
Anyway. That’s my end of year future of media ramble.
I’m going to re-invent this blog over the next few weeks. Venting at PRs has been fun but I may have said everything about that for now. Bring on 2009 and we’ll see!