Tuesday, March 03, 2009

You'll miss the media when it’s gone

I’ve been seeing lots of schadenfreude, particularly on the so-called progressive end of the blogsphere, around the troubles facing the media industry today. Call me contrarian, and since I’m a journalist by trade, biased, but I think this joy is shortsighted. You’ll miss the media when it’s gone.

The fact is, blogging and tweeting cannot replace the role professional journalism plays in our society, and a free and democratic society needs a watchdog press that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And what would bloggers write about without main-stream media stories to link to and kvetch about?

I think much of the progressive glee has to do with the troubles of Canwest, and particularly the National Post, a paper formed in spite by Conrad Black to punish the Liberals and advance the conservative cause after Jean Chretien wouldn’t let Black become a Lord. (Edit: Maybe the lordship brouhaha came later, but certainly Conrad's distaste for Chretien, and Liberals, predates the Post)

Given the Post’s ideology, a little schadenfreude is inevitable from the progressive side. As a Liberal, I’m not sorry to see the Post going. As a journalist, I hate to see any organization employing journalists in trouble, and a number of friends work/have worked at the Post over the years. And off the op/ed pages, there has been some excellent journalism at the Post over the years. Early days they had the best Hill coverage around.

However tempting it is to classify the Post’s downfall as a failure of conservative ideology, and that’s certainly an (I think minor) factor, the fact is the Post’s business case was flawed from day one and the troubles at Canwest are much wider, and afflict the entire media industry.

We’ve seen substantial layoffs at Canwest, at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Sun Media, CTV, Rogers, you name it. The entire media industry is suffering. TV stations are closing. In the US, papers are shutting their doors. And it’s exacerbated by the economic downturn, but the downturn is only worsening the pre-existing condition. The problem is declining advertising revenues and declining readership and viewership, driven by the increasing plethora of choices, such as digital channels and the Web.

The traditional media have been slow to adjust to these trends. How do we monetize off the Web? People don’t want to pay for stories on the Web, but it costs money to send a reporter to Afghanistan.

Rather than being large chunks as in the past, it seems to me that micro-audiences are becoming the way of the future. People want content tailored to their own specific interests and needs. That’s why I think the trade press will be better able to whether this downturn, as long as it adjusts to the Web and video: it can deliver qualified, quality eyes that specific advertisers want to reach. It’s a smaller audience, but it’s quality, and that means value.

How can the mainstream media adjust to this model though? They’ve been all about quantity over quality. They can’t tell you who their readers exactly are but there’s a lot of them, so you’ll reach who you want. That’s their model. But the readers are leaving, so they need a new one.

I don’t know what the model will be. I expect we’ll see more consolidation, fewer voices, fewer choices, and hardly any competition. We’ve gone too far down that road already the last 20-25 years in Canada. It will only accelerate. It will mean more corporatization, and less innovation. Increasingly, reporters will be tasked to do more with less – file copy, record podcasts, shoot video, and blog – leaving precious little time to dig, to investigate, to question.

Here’s something that many seem to be missing as they take joy in the suffering of big media: the real casualty is going to be local news. Local papers have been disappearing, and this will continue. Those that survive will be glorified shoppers, with nothing but national wire copy to surround the ads. No more city council coverage, or reviews of the hot new local band. CTV is closing small local stations, and CBC may be forced to follow suit. People can get their news from Toronto.

Local news is dying in this country, and the national media is contracting even further. And I’m sorry, but blogging and tweeting and what have you is not going to replace professional journalism in this country.

How can it? Can bloggers go to Afghanistan to cover the war? Can they go to Parliament Hill and effectively report on the national political scene? I don’t think so. There are a number of significant challenges there.

First, one of bias. Blogging is essentially column writing. Opinion. No one tries to hide their bias, which is good, but it’s not unbiased journalism. This also plays into access. Let’s say bloggers want to cover Parliament Hill. If I’m the Conservatives, do I let BCer into my press conference? If I’m the Liberals, do I admit Janke? And how can I or Janke effectively cover the news with only side of the story? If we even want to pretend to, that is. Blog readers are partisans, but most people aren’t. They want reporting that at least pretends to be neutral. And frankly, so do most partisans.

Second, time and resources. People blog in their spare time. They can’t dedicate eight hours a day, 40 hours a week to reportage like the media do. To change that, they’d need to make money at blogging. That would leave them facing the same challenges as the media: how do you get people to pay for Web content? Not to mention fund fact-finding trips, overseas trips, and investigative reporting.

And Twitter…I don’t buy it either. First, Twitter needs a business model that actually makes money, something it hasn’t found yet. Second, yes, Twitter can scoop the media at times on breaking news, such as assorted plane crashes. But even if you could report on an investigation into, say, the sponsorship scandal in 140 characters or less, I wouldn’t trust random Twitter guy to bring me the story.

The mainstream media is in serious trouble, and it needs to get its act together. But I, for one, won’t be taking joy in its suffering, and neither should anyone else who values our democracy.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent Post. You're on a roll today ; ).

I love blogs . . . obviously. But the absence of good solid news reporting, when you see it, would leave a huge hole in the public dialogue.

I am angry many once-respected news agencies have lost their way on that. I can still recall when news agencies broke big stories and asked tough questions, and recognized their roll as educators to the public on issues they needed to understand.

I want them to learn that roll again, not disappear forever. That would be worse.

Robert McClelland said...

You’ll miss the media when it’s gone.

The media--at least the media that has any value--is already gone. The dregs that remain won't be missed one bit.

Anonymous said...

I guess that should have been "role" not roll ;)

Anonymous said...

I wrote a post on my blog the other day about the changing nature of media. One of the points that I raised is that the (inevitable) death of print and broadcast news does not equal the death of professional journalism. I think that is a mistake to characterize bloggers as people who write opinion columns in their spare time based on second hand research. Sure, that is true of an awful lot of bloggers. But, there are also well-resourced professional news organizations who do excellent first-hand digging and publish their content exclusively online. In other words, the death of newspapers is not alarming because smart newspapers will stop printing a dead tree edition and move into a new medium that has lower distribution costs. They will use that savings to improve the core product (the content), which includes better research and more resources for chasing down a story. These smart publications will still thrive online using a new business model. Unfortunately, most print and broadcast news outlets are abjectly failing to embrace new media and new business models. Eventually, however, they will wake up. When that happens, we will get even better professional news reporting than we have today, but it will be delivered through a different medium and backed by a radically different business model.