Thursday, December 29, 2005

In the Midst of a Great Depression

The old saw tells the lesson, "When your neighbor becomes unemployed, it's a recession. When you lose your job its a depression. When you and others you know all lose jobs, it's the Great Depression."

Depression, given a start, deepens. To the affected, all areas of their lives, even their environment, can seem gloomy and without positive purpose. Nothing works, seemingly no future holds promise worth the experience.

Those employed by the icons of the main stream media, especially the ink-stained variant, are particularly wretched as 2005 closes what appears to be one of the later chapters in the story of their industry. They count the ways that the gods of unfairness have singled them out for special treatment.

Employment is down. According to Editor & Publisher, more than 2,000 jobs have been trimmed from newspapers this year alone, with a disproportionate share of the cuts at the expense of those previously sacrosanct, the high priests and priestesses of public information, the residents of the newsrooms. Imagine the blow to the ego, to one's world view, to be one of the 45 permanently removed as reporter, writer or junior editor of the New York Times last November. A notice to report for the draft in 1968 would not have been so devastating! This cannot happen! It certainly can't happen to me!

Even to a colleague not directly or immediately threatened by the loss, it is only a short walk down the lane of disillusion to a workable reconciliation with a parallel reality. "For this to happen, the country must be in truly awful shape! The economy is in desperate shape, unemployed are everywhere!"
There's a certain pecking order imposed during calamity, after all, and for a member of one of the most competent groups, certainly the most socially beneficial, to take a hit must mean desperate times are here.

The credibility of the media is taking a real beating. Perfectly ordinary readers, people with no particular political agenda, now go out of their way to sniff out the source of a story and value it accordingly. Many consumers have experienced the disconnect of seeing or reading a story about which they know something, a local story that makes network news, an industry story picked up by the wire services, where the connection between story and reality is only tenuous. Almost like vinophiles concerned about the terroir of a favorite wine, some readers in the hinterlands now give more credence to stories that don't spring from The New York Times or the Washington Post.

The destruction of the news monopoly, or at best oligopoly, has begun. It is a casualty of the "500 channels" available on cable or the up to 8 million news sources and analytic pieces delivered on demand and in real time over the Internet. While not all blogs are trustworthy, some are. While not all institutional news providers suffer from the gross incompetence of consequent to a previously protected industry, many do. Some still act as though the moat and walls are still effective against the unwashed barbarians storming the gates. According to The WSJ,

"(Advertising) rate increases may be difficult to pull off as a two-decade slump in newspaper circulation appears to be worsening. Circulation-a key metric for setting advertising rates–fell 2.6% on average at daily newspapers in the sixth-month period ending Sept. 30, a bigger drop than any comparable sixth-month period since 1991, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations."
Credibility dies a thousand deaths with every Jason Blair fabrication, Dan Rather excuse (is there no better word?) that no one has yet proven the papers fraudulent, or the Los Angeles Times' (circulation down 3.7% in six months) explanation that a front page quote was lifted from an Internet practical joke. Part of this is patently unfair. We do hold the Times to a much higher standard than any blogger, for instance. But the Times also holds itself to a much higher station in life than does any blogger. Like its peers, it relies on and brags about its layers of editors and fact checkers. To prosper, to survive it must deliver value, not just effort.

Like an army that has lost its mission, the media's cost counters have shrunk its tip, the newsgatherers. This has reduced content, quality and quantity. Fewer reporters, writers and editors on the job means more errors, feeding public concern about credibility and, eventually, believability. At the same time, fewer stories receive any attention at all. Perceived value to the consumer decreases at increasing rates.

The business side is no better. According to Jim Morton, an independent newspaper consultant quoted by The Wall Street Journal, newspapers were able to increase advertising rates faster than inflation until just three or four years ago. Since then it's been a struggle. Small wonder, given that newspapers deliver a smaller percentage of total household news volume every year and what they deliver is perceived to be of lower quality. It becomes a closed cycle. By cutting labor costs they cut value. By attempting to raise rates they accelerate the increase in unit costs. Higher costs call for more cuts. The resulting labor reductions depress those who remain almost as much as those forced to leave, thereby flavoring the filters through which they sift the news they report thereby driving ever-larger wedges between the reality we see and the stories they author.

In aviation that describes a "graveyard spiral," a flight maneuverer from which there can be no recovery.

It may very well be that the media as presently organized has come to the end of its substantial value. A truly depressing thought to those who care most and dangerous to the rest of us if they attempt to make their depression our own.

Update: Mary Katherine Ham has further thoughts in Open MSM Bonnet, Insert Bee at Hugh Hewitt's.

Update: A very thorough treatise by Patterico on the woes facing a MSM icon, The Los Angeles Times.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed re-armament and led the nation away from isolationism as the world headed into World War II. He provided extensive support to Winston Churchill and the British war effort before the attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into the fighting. During the war, Roosevelt, working closely with his aide Harry Hopkins, provided decisive leadership against Nazi Germany and made the United States the principal arms supplier and financier of the Allies who defeated Germany, Italy and Japan. Roosevelt led the United States as it became the Arsenal of Democracy, putting 16 million American men into uniform.