Whither the Media? Storm Clouds Circling
This is the second of two related pieces. The first, last Sunday, was by Mohsin Ali, formerly with Reuters and The Times of London.
As someone who worked in radio, dabbled in educational television, and then spent an entire professional career representing broadcast, cable and newspaper interests, I have notions of media and journalism that are probably too ingrained and overly romanticized.
Like everyone else, I hear the unrelenting cacophony of partisan voices on cable and endure the impassioned polemics that pass for letters to the editor in The Pilot. Yet for the time being, I take comfort in the vast amounts of more balanced, less intemperate news and information still found in prominent daily newspapers, leading news magazines and various features on NPR or PBS.
In short, if one ignores the loudest voices, there are many media sources fulfilling the classic "fourth estate" role -- an established, independent press serving as the imperfect but essential voice of the people, gathering and disseminating vital information while also guarding against governmental and institutional abuses.
Increasingly, however, I find myself asking: How long can it last? Will even the best and most reliable sources eventually shrink or disappear? Or, by even entertaining such thoughts, am I merely casting my lot with a distinct, dwindling minority who believe there is something worth saving? One thing, however, is certain -- the clouds are darkening, and journalism as we have known it faces a very stormy future.
The torrent of media now flowing over the American landscape comes in many new forms -- delivering our news, information and entertainment over cable, satellite, wireless, and cyberspace. The stream is 24/7, with content that is simultaneously comforting and disruptive, vital and frivolous. We love mass media and we hate mass media, with ample justification for both emotions.
The question I pose is whether we care enough about its journalistic role. Not its entertainment role -- which, although also changing, is not seriously threatened -- but the process by which reporters gather the news and investigate people, actions and institutions that directly impact the public interest. Think political corruption, business fraud, and issues raising health or safety risks.
Despite the ubiquitous nature and enduring popularity of its product, the business of mass media is in difficult straits. Everywhere we turn, almost every day, there is another announcement of a newspaper in trouble or closing.
Storied dailies like the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Rocky Mountain News and Christian Science Monitor are just the most recent examples of papers in serious trouble or that have already failed. And, even if they are not closing, newspapers are cutting staff, dropping sections or features, and shutting down bureaus.
Changes in radio and television have not been as dramatic, but the pain of lost audiences and fewer advertising dollars is sweeping over broadcasting as well. It can be seen in cheaper programming, smaller staffs, less on-air news and almost no serious investigative reporting.
Scanning more broadly, the forecast is not much better. A powerful combination of the Great Recession (in the general economy) and the Great Transformation (in the media economy) has also been spewing carnage over the entire print business, from failed or struggling magazines to a rapidly shrinking book-publishing business.
Even our newest media form, the prodigious Internet, still struggles to find a viable business model. Certainly a few Web sites like Amazon or Google are great success stories. But the vast majority -- especially those media-related -- still have not found a way to attract enough advertisers or paying subscribers to be self-sustaining (much less profitable).
Interestingly, recent media failures have done little to quell the constant criticism -- that they are too biased, too powerful, too frivolous or just too greedy. The usual critique is that mass media are too slanted and put the pursuit of profits before good journalism. There is, of course, ample truth in such complaints. On the other hand, it is also true that similar complaints have been heard about mass media from the very beginning.
Today, we have cable channels and talk radio shows actually specializing in bias. But from Colonial days through most of the 19th century, news was very one-sided and published by highly partisan interests (including the political parties at the time).
Equally notable is the claim that modern media are controlled by corporate behemoths who want only to curtail news and expand advertising. Yes, as in the past, today's business has seen its share of bad actors and destructive deeds -- reflected, most recently, by some horrible mergers and questionable Wall Street deals that have saddled media companies with too much debt.
Still, the most challenging problems facing today's mass media cannot be traced just to bad business practices or poor editorial decisions. They involve a complicated mix of new technology, an almost endless stream of media sources and the changing lifestyles of the American public.
'The Daily Me'
First, I would argue that we probably have too much (not too little) competition -- with modern technology giving us literally thousands of news and entertainment sources. Bouncing over the air, over cable, over satellite and through cyberspace, they deliver countless content directly to our homes, our cars, or to a multitude of mobile devices, any time and anywhere we chose.
Second, this unprecedented level of competition has not only fragmented audiences over many more media outlets, but it has also caused advertisers to spread their budgets over a greater number of media platforms. Shrinking audiences and migrating advertising dollars is a deadly combination for any mass media business.
A third major problem faced by today's mass media is a little harder to define -- but just as important. It involves the changing habits or lifestyles of the American public.
Younger folks are already quite comfortable in a digital mobile world, needing neither hard copy nor a scheduled newscast. This tendency will only accelerate over time, as today's youth becomes tomorrow's great majority.
In addition, working Americans, regardless of age, seem to live busier lives with far less time for general interest newspapers or any media source requiring sustained reflection. In fact, shorter attention spans and quicker, more cryptic forms of communication are increasingly the norm for many Americans (exemplified by the success of text messaging and "Twitter"). And, when they do use media, they increasingly turn only to those sources that match their own interests and viewpoints -- a trend actually accelerated by the proliferation of specialized sources.
Nicholas Negroponte, the digital-age guru at MIT, calls this kind of personalized news selection "The Daily Me." Whether it's a good thing for citizens to close themselves off from other viewpoints (or other topics of interest) -- by cherry-picking a single story with a simple click and then rushing on -- is something social and political scientists will be studying for years.
Things to Expect
So, this, in my admittedly biased viewpoint, is where we stand in 2009 -- more media sources than ever before, but with new challenges so serious that they threaten the very existence of traditional mass media. Even more important than where we stand today, I suppose, is where we are headed.
Personally, I think we can expect the following key developments over the next decade or so:
(1) The eventual death of most remaining general-interest, big-city dailies (at least in print form).
(2) The survival of most small-town or suburban papers, especially those emphasizing what commentators now call the "hyper-local" model. In fact, the Raleigh and Charlotte papers are much more likely to fail than the paper you are holding in your hands.
(3) The survival and re-orientation of a few national newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post -- which will be both much more expensive to buy and more specialized in coverage.
(4) The failure or weeding-out of numerous local radio and TV stations and some national TV networks -- with the survivors increasingly pooling resources to gather and report news. More significantly, the remaining major national TV networks may decide to deliver all of their programming straight to cable and satellite (cutting out local affiliates like WRAL-TV).
(5) The proliferation of highly localized news and information-oriented Web sites (unaffiliated with newspapers or broadcast stations) that are specifically geared to a single metro area. (A few of these already exist in places like San Diego and Minneapolis.)
(6) And finally, although it pains me to concede this point, an increased level of rancor and partisanship, as Americans continue to cherry-pick their own news stories (from aggregators or search engines on the Web) or by turning to specialized news operations on cable.
Democracy at Stake
Against this background, I return to my central concern -- do we even care? In short, do the trends I have highlighted raise any legitimate apprehension about the future?
I guess I would answer no -- that we shouldn't be concerned about the state of our media -- as long as we also don't have any concern about the state of our democracy. Because, like it or not, the two go together. As our founding fathers (especially Jefferson) made clear more than 200 years ago, a functioning democracy needs a functioning media system as much as lungs need good air.
Let me hasten to add that in harking back to this fundamental American principle, my focus is not on the necessity of any one media platform -- since I recognize that we are in a transition that's unstoppable. Rather, what needs to survive (if our democracy is to prosper) is a dedicated form of professional journalism.
We may not need printed newspapers, as such, but we do need real reporters -- covering Main Street as well as Wall Street, and the state house as well as the White House -- acting as a check on abuses of power and acts of corruption by both government and business.
Less noticed, but just as important, a strong, independent press must now counter the escalating skill of people in power to manipulate the message on public issues -- a practice actually facilitated by the endless stream of media outlets, whose diffused nature and strained resources are no match for big government or big business. Indeed, it is increasingly common for government officials to favor sympathetic media outlets for special treatment or even to find ways to bypass media operations entirely.
The challenge in today's environment is that someone -- surely not the government -- must pay for the content created by reporters and the crucial oversight role performed by editors. While we live in an era where it is easier to see what is broken than what will replace it, we must not stop experimenting, or stop looking for solutions.
They may be on the Web, they may be in new, more specialized print sources, they may be in better-financed, re-oriented public broadcast services (something I advocate in my 2007 book), or they may be in some wholly new, yet undiscovered method for disseminating news and information.
But one thing is guaranteed: We will not enjoy the fruits of professional journalism in this brave new world completely free of charge. Some form of payment is essential, if the craft as we have known it is to survive.
For me, the real question is whether the American public -- most of whom are already migrating away from traditional news sources -- will eventually support a different kind of service that actually costs something (beyond payments to their broadband provider). If the general public will not do so -- and serious journalism continues to erode -- our media system and our democracy will fall well short of America's best aspirations.
Carl R. Ramey, of Pinehurst, is a retired communications attorney and author of "Mass Media Unleashed: How Washington Policymakers Shortchanged The American Public."
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