As debate ranges on within the media industry about how to respond to the creative destruction created by the Internet and the rise of news websites as an alternative to newspapers, I watch with fascination and dismay.
Newspaper moguls and various journalists are lamenting the destruction of the business model that once supported large staffs as they try to wriggle out of traps created by plunging ad revenues, declining circulation, and increasingly vocal criticism from the public. Howard Kurtz, the media critic for The Washington Post, captured the sentiment in his Media Notes column in Tuesday’s newspaper while also acknowledging his increasing pessimism about the ability of newspapers to remain in business:
“…In 1993, just before the Internet became a consumer force, I argued in a book (Media Circus: The Trouble With American Newspapers) that newspapers had become too cautious, too incremental, and too dull, tailored largely for insiders. The rise of hugely profitable monopoly papers in most cities made them increasingly bland, seemingly allergic to controversy. Then the Net changed America, but newspapers remained mired in two-dimensional thinking… Now that they are belatedly beefing up their Web sites, executives are using corporate-speak like “platform agnostic” to explain why they are firing hordes of journalists deemed redundant. Perhaps newspapers had grown too fat and were always destined to slim down in the Web era, but mass firings have about them an air of desperation. How can papers with far smaller staffs and reduced ambition stem circulation declines.”
In response, many reader comments at the end of the column make clear how little they seem to be concerned any potential impending demise of newspapers. Indeed, some actively appear to be rooting for the disappearance of newspapers, seeing their destruction as the just rewards of an egotistical out-of-touch elite unable to any longer report on topics the audience sees as central to their life, or to report with a political neutrality they find acceptable.
Whether this is another unintended consequence of the poisonous culture wars and political partisanship that has flowed across our country in the past 40 years is another key question to be assessed, perhaps by academic experts with suitable curiosity and detachment.
The negative reaction of some readers to Kurtz’s lament is shared by many bloggers. For example, in rebuttal, the Daily Kos challenged the view that mainstream newspapers have been a traditional source of “community.”
In the meantime, as one of the recently departed from a media company, I see a clear dichotomy between audience views and the newspaper as it is currently constituted. Clearly much of the newspaper’s intended audience does not see it as an essential contributor to civil society and the elevation of public discourse, or as an effective means of providing meaningful information to communities of interest.
It all brings me back to a Playboy interview that appeared in their March 1969 issue with the noted Canadian media critic Marshall McLuhan. In the interview, McLuhan addressed his own critics who were assailing his analysis of the likely impact that electronic media would have on society.
“…PLAYBOY: Are you referring to the critical attacks to which you’ve been subjected for some of your theories and predictions?
McLUHAN: I am. But I don’t want to sound uncharitable about my critics. Indeed, I appreciate their attention. After all, a man’s detractors work for him tirelessly and for free. It’s as good as being banned in Boston. But as I’ve said, I can understand their hostile attitude toward environmental change, having once shared it. Theirs is the customary human reaction when confronted with innovation: to flounder about attempting to adapt old responses to new situations or to simply condemn or ignore the harbingers of change — a practice refined by the Chinese emperors, who used to execute messengers bringing bad news. The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures. The literati find the new electronic environment far more threatening than do those less committed to literacy as a way of life. When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury. But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.”
I think McLuhan’s quote sums it up pretty well. For newspapers to remain relevant, the product needs fundamental reinvention editorially, as well as in the revenue model sense. And even if reinvented, it remains to be seen if the newspapers can survive as mechanisms of information distribution. Tying the survival of media companies to the preservation of newspapers seems peculiar now as a solution to media company woes. It seems that clinging to old models in every dimension likely won’t address the current problems. Speaking for visual journalists and their output, I think some of the journalism reinvention clearly has to be aimed at enabling visual journalists to create compelling multimedia narrative stories online. Such stories must actually reflect the communities where those stories are being found. Restricting visual journalism online to the limited literalism of existing print newspaper usage patterns is all part of the ongoing problem. It is also a symptom of the creative malaise Kurtz acknowledges. If media companies try to weaken their online properties in hopes it will make their print products look more appealing, then they are really missing the media sea changes that McLuhan saw coming 40 years ago.