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Category: Journalism

Traditional media only look dead

Originally published March 25, 2013

8157e9a26202ca2af4c1d4cd3728f20aThe news is going digital. But electronic delivery is still dependent on content. And while the content of the news has evolved in the internet age, traditional brands – from NBC News to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – all remain popular. The trick is keeping them profitable, which job may fall to the big media companies.

Traditional media meet the digital age

At the dawn of the internet revolution, a friend of mine moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to take a job with Silicon Valley a start-up. You can imagine how that ended. His parting words were that Hollywood was an old, dying industry and that the internet was the future. My thought at the time was that those internet start-ups wouldn’t have much to broadcast – or at least much of what people wanted to see – without licensing from traditional content providers.

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So the following seems a common sense finding in the Pew Center’s newly released report on American Journalism: “On mobile devices, news consumers also are more likely to go directly to a news site or use an app, rather than to rely on search – strengthening the bond with traditional news brands.” And this finding may help explain why in 2012 the increase in share price of some of the biggest media companies bested that of the S & P 500, including Comcast (up 57.6%), Time Warner Cable (up 32%), New Corporation (up 43%) and Viacom (up 16.1%).

News consumers continue to seek out traditional brands because they are the most reliable and trustworthy. One knows that a New Yorker column has been double, and maybe even triple, fact-checked, but one cannot same the same of – or have anything close to the same level of confidence in – a blog entry or small, specialty website.

The challenge for journalism is to properly monetize the web. And a pay wall is not the answer, because it decreases, rather than increases, the number of eyeballs on a page of web content. Again according to the Pew report,

In 2011, losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to 1, a ratio even worse than in 2010. When circulation and advertising revenue are combined, the newspaper industry has shrunk 43% since 2000.

So while the Pew report shows that 10% of surviving U.S. dailies launched some sort of digital subscription plan or pay wall last year, the trend of losing 15% of those dailies annually continues unabated. In other words, as fast as old line newspapers have moved to replace print advertising with pay wall income, their gains in digital revenue has not kept pace.

This movement away from print journalism is taking place at the same time that news websites are seeing tremendous growth (up over 17% last year!) – so there is an opportunity. Indeed, the extremely low cost of electronic distribution on the web offers journalists the most reachable and diverse group of viewers they have ever had.

The answer in journalism, as in politics, is to follow the money.

In 2011, five technology giants generated 68% of all digital ad revenue. . . . By 2015, roughly one out of every five display ad dollars is expected to go to Facebook. . . .

Without original content, there would be nothing for these technology giants (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) to provide. There is a need for a royalty-based system for the authors of this content – the journalists, editors and news companies, to get their fair share of digital ad revenue.

The larger media companies are already taking steps to acquire traditional content providers: AOL bought the Huffington Post; News Corporation the Wall Street Journal; Comcast NBC Universal; and Time Warner Disney.

According to David Carr, writing in The New York Times, “. . . [D]igital enterprises were supposed to be trouncing media companies; not only is that not happening, but they are writing checks to buy content.” As he further explains,

“. . . [M]ost of the big media companies are, in one way or another, cable content companies with lots of leverage in negotiations when it comes to distribution. . . . New players have opened windows to sell content without cannibalizing the retransmission and affiliate fees that have turned into a gold mine for media companies”

Accordingly, these somewhat traditional media companies – now cast in the role of content providers – may have the corporate power, and lobbying bankroll, to gain market share on the technology giants that are now eating all the spoils of the internet revolution. Not very egalitarian, but at least it’s movement in the right direction.

Objective versus opinion journalism, not an either/or proposition

Originally published February 11, 2013

Sonia Sotomayor Gives Speech At Commonwealth Club In San Francisco

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Do we really need to choose between the two forms of journalism – subjective versus objective – or side more toward one than the other? Certainly there are outer boundaries that neither should cross. Even an opinion writer should not secretly be on the take as a paid appendage of a politician or corporation. And an objective journalist should not lazily rely on the false dichotomy of so called “he-said/she-said” reporting to treat informed and ridiculous views as though they are equal. But not every journalist, newspaper, blog and news broadcast needs to be either a crusading muckraker or Jim Lehrer, a man without a party, bias or seeming ability to control, let alone direct, a debate.

Why not enjoy both the front and opinion pages of the newspaper? Can’t I read the New York Times in the morning to get the facts and then watch Chris Matthews at night to make sense of those facts and get some opinionated perspective?

In The Origins of Objectivity in American Journalism, Richard Kaplan tells us that

. . . [J]ournalism’s professional ethic reflects the overarching structure of the political field with all its contentions about who is a proper public speaker and what is proper public rhetoric. When these broader political institutions and cultural ideas shift, those changes are inevitably reflected and refracted in the public mission of the press.

Thus, the partisan press of the Gilded Age; the objective press of the Progressive Age; and the fractured press of the Internet Age would seem to fit the moment.

But maybe the internet can serve to democratize journalism by allowing in more and differing voices, while maintaining the press’ Twentieth Century role as the neutral arbiter of the truth. After all, the news of the last century, with the Fairness Doctrine and all, was presently to us largely by white men of a certain age and education. In retrospect, it seems so Eisenhower Administration.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a good metaphor for what the internet brings to the dissemination of news and opinion. She is just the third woman but the first Latina on the Supreme Court. At her confirmation hearing, a faux controversy broke out about an earlier speech in which she said that a “wise Latina woman” might reach better conclusions than white males without the same experiences. In response, she had to explain that she was not advocating deciding cases based upon her personal bias.

Rather:

Life experiences have to influence you. We’re not robots who listen to evidence and don’t have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That’s what my speech was saying.

In other words, judges, or journalists, should not consciously interject their pre-existing biases in deciding a case, or reporting a story, but they may have a broader perspective making them susceptible to some facts that might be ignored by others. The more the internet eases access to and dissemination of news, the more likely we are to get at the broader truth, which can only come from a multitude of views. Some presented objectively, and some subjectively.