Friday, September 18, 2009

Legacy Media: It's Not Just Stupid

How do we explain the current sad state of American news media? Financially, it appears to be in a graveyard spiral from which recovery grows more unlikely each passing quarter. The Washington Post has announced losses that exceed 200% of its subscription revenues. Tripling its price would not be enough for profitability. The New York Times is sufficiently deep in debt so as to redefine the term toxic asset. Other newspaper companies are filling bankruptcy courts across the land, while network television firms are in a headlong race to the ratings oblivion.


Competition. Not necessarily competition for dollars but competition for the delivery of credible information. The new alternative sources for news, everything from cable conglomerates to Internet hobbyists, are competing for consumers' mindshare using an historically unbeatable recipe: faster, cheaper, better.

Faster. Few modern consumers and even fewer opinion leaders can be satisfied waiting for news delivered at the convenience of the supplier, whether a paper at 6 AM or a broadcast at 6 PM. Through tremendous advances in technology and efficiencies on a scale and pace equal to Moore's Law, consumers' have been offered near real-time print, audio and video and now that standard defines our expectations for information delivery. One area that can march to a slower beat is news analysis, both in-depth and opinion, as long as it supported by a trusted brand. There's a more patient audience for Charles Krauthammer's opinion on President Obama's ability to connect to reality; the audience for 1,000 words on Iranian weapons development by "McClatchey Newspapers" is somewhat smaller. Change the byline to John Bolton and the perceived value increases, allowing for slower delivery.

Cheaper. Our local newspaper just announced a $1 per month surcharge for subscribers who wish to continue to have a TV schedule included with their Sunday papers. I'd sarcastically suggest they do the same with what were once its Sports, Local, Lifestyle, National and Local sections, too, before they became mere paragraphs squeezed between the ads for tattoo parlors and used furniture. I can get a surfeit of regional, national, international and special interest news off the Internet for free. That's an impossible paradigm against which to compete. Better that local papers concentrate on doing a stunning job reporting in the one area in which they have an advantage, local news. That niche leaves room for reporting for which I'm willing to pay. The best major national brands have some room to maneuver, too. The Wall Street Journal still often practices journalism, generally credibly reporting on that which is difficult for me to source on my own.

Better. Recent days have brightly illustrated the sad retreat from relevance marched by legions of legacy media. The ACORN scandal, which once would have been the sole province of CBS's 60 Minutes, is instead the property of two young off-the-books replacements for Woodward and Bernstein, shepherded by Andrew Breitbart, a news impressario every bit as talented as the late Don Hewett. Worse, at least one of the media's golden boys, Charlie Gibson, hadn't even heard of the story five days into it, the day before unprecedented action in first the Senate, then the House. Not much better was the excuse by The New York Times on missing the Van Jones scandal, that its reporters' schedules were unduly taxed by vacations at the time. The Internet never sleeps.

Finally, legacy media is untrusted and viewed by its potential customers as untrustworthy. Professionals in the business apparently don't hear this news, don't accept this news and don't believe this news but until and unless they do the next sound they hear will be the industry's funeral bells tolling.

That tolling was exemplified by a commentor to Don Surber's blog about the embarrassing performance of CNN's star newsman Wolf Blitzer as a contestant on TV's Jeopardy, a game of general current knowledge. Blitzer finished third against a standup comedian and an actress from the show Desperate Housewives. Placing last is bad. Walking away with no money at all is rare. But to actually lose money, to end up with a $4,000 net loss on the show, is historic. Bob Williams explains Wolf's loss and captures the industry's situation, too:

To get a score like that, not only do you have to be very, very stupid. That would get you zero points. To run up a negative score you have to THINK you know stuff.

Ronald Reagan once quoted Will Rogers, "It's not what people don't know that hurts them. It's what they do know that just ain't so."

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