Monday, May 24, 2010

Did Traditional Media Miss The Boat?

It seems everywhere you turn these days, people are either trying to determine the future of media or are lamenting the death of print journalism as we've known it. Yet in all these discussions, no one recalls a point where newspapers in particular had a chance to embrace the future and failed in a big way.

Those of us who were online in the 1990s remember bold predictions of how the commercial Internet was going to bring positive changes to the news business that would benefit the consumer and the journalist. The theory was online platforms would bridge the age gap by bringing younger consumers who were less likely to subscribe to a newspaper into the news-consumption fold. At the same time, newspapers were likely to thrive because many liked the advantages they provided, not the least of which was easy portability.

While the consumer Internet did bring an increase in some demographics, the benefit was largely muted by publishers who were so scared at killing their "cash cow" that they essentially voided any success they could have had online by continually shifting subscription policies, only making certain content available online, etc.

These strategy shifts initially didn't have much of an impact because many of the companies successfully doing business online were "off shoots" of major media companies. Things really began to change when citizen journalism, which was first seen in outlets like The Drudge Report, and now includes The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post and a number of other well-respected outlets.

With this shift, start-ups began to prove that you didn't have to be a major media conglomerate to offer quality news. Add to that, the fact that these sites traditionally attracted sought-after demographics meant that they were able to cover their already low start-up and operating costs relatively easily.

Over the last two years, while much has changed on the social news front, very little has changed in the newspaper arena, with the exception of the fact that many outlets are losing money. Papers know better than to abandon their Web sites, but only The Wall Street Journal has figured out how to make money from its online presence. The move online is one of the key reasons that big battles between editorial staffers and management have played out at The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe to name a couple.

Meanwhile, journalism graduates and long-time scribes alike are villifying major media organizations for making it much harder to earn a living as a reporter these days. In a discussion on the media-centric site Mediabistro recently, many writers were taking aim at "content mills" like Associated Content, which pays writers relatively little money to produce content for sites like Livestrong -- at least when compared to $1 a word or better at well-known trades and larger outlets.

From a societal standpoint, one can argue this shift has been a bad thing. However, there's enough blame to go around for allowing it to happen. Newspapers had more than a decade to figure out a new business model, but were instead happy to rely on their tried-and-true model that basically relied on low-cost labor for the most part. Had it not been for the fact that most scribes earned very little money for much of their careers, the model would have fallen apart 20 years ago. This meant there was relatively little fat that outlets were willing to trim when times got tough.

What journalism honestly needs now are well-respected individuals willing to serve as cheerleaders for an industry that's done great things for society over the years. Hopefully that will come before it's too late.