The media needn’t die

We’ve been seeing the endless merging and retrenchment of the mass media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television) for two decades now — basically, once the Internet became a consumer tool, the decline truly set in.

Since then — much as with the music distributors, the Hollywood production houses, and other entertainment companies that have faced the onslaught of digital competition with their old physically-based business models — it’s been one move after another to try and hold onto what already exists.

The latest move will be the wave this fall of pay walls rising around the newspaper sites, as media giant after media giant implement “pay up or else” strategies. Meanwhile, strapped television channels make common cause with distributors (cable, satellite, and via-phone) to push “eat all you can” players like Netflix to the margins: make it too expensive to watch too much that way.

Well, if you wanted to kill even more of these off, this is precisely the right way to go about it.

The Future of Newspapers

Why would anyone read a newspaper in today’s day and age?

The news no longer needs to wait for tomorrow morning. We have 24/7/365 access to it thanks to the Internet. (Those amongst us who want to never miss anything — thankfully, I’m not one of them — probably have a Twitter feed open constantly.)

What a newspaper used to sell was yesterday’s news, surrounded by advertising — and of all the ads it was the lowly classified that actually paid the bulk of the bills. Newspapers, in turn, had reporters — real people — ferreting out that news.

Craigslist started the migration of the classified away from the newspaper. Since then, it’s been one wave of “doing without reporters” after another.

I can read the same Canadian Press or Associated Press story in any newspaper in the country — so why do I want yours? (I publish columns via a news distributor that appear across the country: there’s nothing wrong with this, but it does make the news rather generic.)

What today would make a newspaper different and worth having is detailed analysis and opinion (as Werner Patels pointed out a few days ago).

Give me voices I can’t get anywhere else, and solid thinking I can’t find elsewhere, and your paper becomes meaningful to me, and worth paying for. In fact, a paper that had a sixteen-page front section that was 2 pages of news and 14 pages of analysis/opinion, instead of today’s 14 pages of generic news and bought-in items, and two pages of editorials and op-eds (again, mostly bought-in), would be a viable property for years to come.

Otherwise you can join the other dead titles.

Radio

Radio has descended into a wasteland of “sound alike” experiences — one of the reasons that the pathetic efforts of the CBC (compared to other public broadcasters) are so well received and, indeed, loved — thanks to concentration of ownership and intense programme exchange.

I listen to several radio programmes via podcast from other parts of the country, because they are local voices bringing something unique to the table, with different people being interviewed or talking than I’m used to. (I don’t tend to bother with the “national” programmes because it’s the same old-same old.)

These programmes, by the way, span music, but with specific, intelligent local people programming a unique, non-syndicated programme.

Radio, more than anything else, is about personality. (How else could Peter Gzowski have acquired his following on the CBC years ago?) A station with a personality charts out a place for itself in its market.

Why, though, would I want to hear talk radio from elsewhere, just because it’s cheap to produce, or the current media giant music track programmed in advance for a week with no one in the control room, as so many stations now do?

Television

What is a television channel? It’s a brand. That brand, in turn, should indicate what it is you’re getting for giving it your custom.

You would turn to the CBC to see Canadian comedy and drama. You would turn to CNN or the BBC World Service because they ought to have real reporters in the field everywhere a story breaks (increasingly, they don’t). Your turn to MSNBC or FoxNews for pure partisan propaganda. You expect name brand sports but secondary teams on TSN. So it goes.

But you have to fill your schedule with what your brand says about you.

If you — like CNN — convert from being a news-breaking organization to a “talking heads yelling at each other” studio operation, you can expect your viewership to die. (Which it has.)

A news channel should have news and analysis of the meaning of the news. There’s nothing wrong with an opinion channel, by the way, but it’s a separate type of venture attracting a different kind of viewer. A channel creating a brand out of national productions about the nation has to actually step back from extensive sports coverage (no matter how “lucrative”) because disrupting its brand is more costly in the long run than the revenue from games today — and so too with award shows or a night at the ballet.

Between “watch it on iTunes without commercials”, “watch it via services like Netflix and Hulu”, time shifting with personal digital recorders, and time shifting with multi-channel distribution (a satellite viewer of a programme in Canada that’s on a national network has no less than six different times to watch the programme, thanks to the distributor carrying channels from all six time zones), the idea of stopping what you’re doing now only applies to sports and galas. Everything else is seen “whenever”.

So stations prosper with well defined brands — either as a centrally-distributed brand like a cable channel, or as a network affiliate (where “local” programming reflects radio values alongside the network feed).

What none of these — print, radio or television — prosper with is the old business model.

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