News Is Not Good News.
The 2009 report from Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism is out, and the findings are sobering to those in the traditional media. Users/consumers/readers/viewers of the media should see it too.
This weekend, Fred Zipp, Austin American-Statesman editor, commented on the recent lay-offs and buy-outs at the newspaper. Zipp listed familiar names, by-lines, now gone or leaving. Among them is Bob Banta, a reporter who patiently showed me where to find things as a baby reporter in Austin in the early 1970s. Banta has been with the American-Statesman for 44 years. Forty-four years!!! How much history and how many contacts will leave the room when Banta joins the other eleven who have taken buy-outs at the local paper.
Zipp is clearly pained by this process of attrition in his newsroom. “We’re struggling with our emotions,” he says noting that “the recession has inflicted wounds on newspapers just as it has on other businesses.” The newspaper business was already in trouble. The recession dealt a death blow to some like the Rocky Mountain News. “Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke, suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness,” the Pew report says.
“Newspapers face serious challenges from a host of smart competitors, but that’s nothing new,” Zipp says. “Radio and television rose from nothing to become formidable foes, just as Internet based businesses have done.”
“We figured out how to stay in business then, and we’ll do it again,” Zipp says.
The problem is this: Newspapers, television stations, and radio are all in the same boat now, according to the Pew report. All are cutting costs where they can. Some, radio in particular, no longer report news beyond the Associated Press and re-writing the local newspaper, thanks in part to deregulation in the early 1980s. Television is still the people’s trusted choice among the traditional media, but it is losing ground to cable and the Internet, the report says. The Pew report cites TV newsrooms with too few people to cover their communities.
Other research shows that audiences, particularly the Austin market, want solid content. If the audience cannot find the content in one medium, it will move on to the next. People (reporters) equal content. If there are fewer reporters, there is less content. So, now, the audience fragments as each member, like a hunter/gather, goes off in search of their desired content. Audiences of the traditional media decline. Their ratings or circulation figures fall. Their advertisements are worth less. The media makes less money. There is the problem in a nutshell.
What worries me the most is this: If the local users/consumers/readers/viewers of the media go to their favorite sites in the Internet, where are they getting good information about their community? How for instance, will they get the information they need to make informed decisions in the upcoming Austin City Council election? The Internet worked will for a national campaign. President Barrack Obama proved that. Will that model work on a local scale. Should that model work? Can you find comparable facts about the competing candidates?
Back to Mr. Zipp’s commentary. Zip said, “We figured out how to stay in business then, and we’ll do it again.” What is not said here is that no one, including Mr. Zip, has found that formula or model for financial success in this eclectic information age. I set out a model in a post a week or so ago. Readers resoundingly told me that they would not pay for news on the Internet. If we are going to pay the reporters to gather the content that the local users/consumers/readers/viewers want and/or need, we must pay. That is also the conclusion of the 2009 Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Find the full report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism here: http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2009. It is an important read for anyone. Also, Poynter.org breaks it down here: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=123
© Jim McNabb, 2009