The Demise of the Media

Business-DinosaurQuick show of hands: who thinks the media is a dinosaur? Dying? Bloating and/or out of touch? Think so? I’m not so sure.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published their tenth annual State of the Media report. It was full of doom and gloom. Full of statistics that support all of those adjectives I used above. The first two sentences one reads on the entire website published to support the research are as follows:

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report.

Talk about leading one’s audience.

The media, acting in a completely disinterested and objective manner I’m sure, repackaged the bad news, tore at their hair and clothes and bemoaned their position.

The public is fleeing traditional mass media. And funding and staffing is being cut left, right and center. But correlation doesn’t always equal causation. Some commenters read this report and saw these two things as separate phenomena that are feeding each other. They think that the public is fleeing traditional mass media not because of fewer reporters, but because they’ve been presented with more options, namely reporting recommended by their friends and families, shared on social media. Howard Kurtz, writing for CNN, says the solution is to come down from the white tower and engage with the public with top-quality content:

As that balance of power shifts, media organizations are scrambling to adapt. They can no longer simply deliver the headlines from on high. They need ordinary folks to serve as their ambassadors, spreading the word about their journalism like the town criers of old.

Hanging out in the social media playground, of course, means enduring the taunts and jeers of the crowd. That’s the price of admission.

But the key to getting talked about and texted and retweeted is having original content. And continuing to water down the product in this age of austerity could amount to slow suicide.

But even as positive as Mr. Kurtz’s view looks, it’s still predicated on the idea that something negative is going on, and the media needs to do something to “fix” it. Matthew Yglesias, writing for Slate, disagrees, calling this the Golden Age of American Journalism (and I agree very much with him):

This viewpoint is not wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken. It’s a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity.

Pew notes with alarm that just over 30 percent of poll respondents “have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.” Phrased more optimistically, in a competitive marketplace content producers who don’t meet their audiences’ needs lose market share to those who do.

Is it harder to make money as a journalist? Absolutely. But that’s a song that’s been sung by industries that have been upset by productivity gains for years centuries. Using Yglesias’ terms: phrased more optimistically, now is exactly the time for entrepreneurial and motivated folks to be in journalism; people who want to turn back the clock will suffer.

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