Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mainstream Media is in its Death Throes

The so-called mainstream media, once defined as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the three major network TV stations, no longer have a monopoly on the opinion making process in American life.

Why belabor the obvious? We all know why. Eyeballs are migrating to the Internet, that vast endless, timeless cloud of information that assaults us 24/7 from every corner of the globe. When eyeballs migrate, the money as defined by the advertisers migrates with them. The less eyeballs, the less revenue, the less revenue, the less investment by the media.

When the revenue decline reaches the tipping point, money dries up, shrinkage occurs until there is nothing left to shrink and the media entity dies or morphs into something else. That is what is happening now. The old media is dying. The new media is building on the corpse of the old media and it is too early to tell if the business paradigm for the new media will ever prosper. It might even die faster than the old media.

Television and radio has split its audience into tiny pieces. There are now hundreds of television channels and thousands of radio channels, and gazillion channels on the Internet. The Tower of Babel now extends into infinity.

Mainstream journalists, many of them now in save-the-world mode (ever since Watergate made celebrities out of investigative journalists) truly believe that we are losing our ability to prod the government into transparency, to uncover corruption and generally serve the public good. Thus, they contend, that the resources to expose the sins of government are drying up, splintering, becoming less effective. They have a point.

The new media now on the Internet e.g., the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Politico and on and on believe that they will fill the gap and become, if not what was once known as the mainstream media, the go-to media. Maybe. Politico is now morphing back into print with a local angle news sheet. They had better have deep pockets.

Those of us who grew up with the traditional mainstream media have, to say the least, mixed feelings about its demise. With fewer outlets we were more like a family, more connected. We knew what each outlet stood for. The public conversation was limited by comparison with today, but comforting since those of us who cared could embrace the information flow. We thought we were getting all sides of all arguments, that our press and speech freedoms were secure. We probably were. Sooner or later, corrupt politicians were exposed by the press and many removed or incarcerated. It amazes me that one crop of crooks are quickly replaced by another crop.

In New York when I was growing up there were eleven dailies. Now, there are three and who knows how long they will survive?

Were we unduly influenced by those who controlled the media? I’m not sure, since the line between the business side of the press and the news side seemed like a pretty wide chasm. Economic desperation may be diluting that ethic. Ideological lines have blurred and the media appears to manipulate its content and layout to favor the particular bent of its sixties influenced editors and reporters. Their nostalgic output seems a lot less subtle than it used to be.

As an ex-newspaperman, I know that editorial placement, headline writing, and the way stories are constructed by length and detail, can make spin often hard to spot. As a former practitioner both as editor and reporter, I can spot a bent story at a hundred paces. On the Net, the same process holds, but usually we know the ideological zone upfront.

In today’s media environment a few big public companies actually control a vast array of competing media. When one conglomerate owns a big basket of unruly entities, it is difficult to get them all to dance to the same tune. Besides, it doesn’t really matter to the operators. Their principal objective is revenue and profit. By and large, they are not selling ideology. They are selling eyeballs and ears. The more they deliver, the more they can charge advertisers. That’s business, and the business of business is business. If it sounds crass, it is.

So far, the migration of the mainstream traditional media to the Net has been a rocky road. It is also a rocky road for the so-called new media e.g. Politico, Huffington, and many others. I’m sure they’re credible but I’m not certain that they have as much influence as they claim. They, like many of their on-line competitors are still in start-up mode and have not yet reached a sustained profit, without which they will eventually fold or become something else.

An exception is the Wall Street Journal, which has paid subscribers on the Net, a lucky early choice with its mostly upscale target base. But most of the on-line media is free and dependent on advertising. I’m still uncertain, despite the hype, whether the advertising is paying off. In other words, everything on the Net that is defined as media e.g. the news business, and other forms of information peddling is still up for grabs.

Of one thing I am absolutely certain. Everything, not only media, is changing. And I do mean everything; delivery systems, marketing, content, medicine, the whole ball of wax. No sooner than we think we have it in our grasp then it moves somewhere else with the speed of light, perhaps faster. Everything that is, perhaps even what is commonly known as human nature.

The center is not holding because there is no center. Marshall McLuhan was spot on. The media have become the message. Google has proved the point. It and its copiers are swiftly becoming the media.

I suppose the trick will be how to keep up. Even this attempt at analysis will be obsolete the moment it is written. Remember that play: Stop the World- I Want To Get Off.

Forget it. It’s spinning too fast. It’s making me dizzy.

How about you?

Next Blog: The Dying of the Celebrity Culture


Anonymous said...

Yep, I'm dizzy also! When you figure out how to make it go away, let me know!

Mike R. Ott said...

I was sixteen when I fingered the media's despair. We went fishing that day and caught some slimy green scum and some other man's line and lure.

When we returned home I snatched the newspaper and settled on the porcelain for a moment of deep thought. The sports page offered the same drivel, some team had their "A-game" and "beat the odds to win."

On I read until I found a request for "newsworthy material." A phone number was provided. Email was still in its babyhood at this time, so I called. I was greeted by their answering machine and left a message, a lie. I told them that I caught a thirty pound striped bass and, as I prepared to toss it back, a poor Mexican family approached me and begged for my catch.

The headline of the sports page the next morning read:

Ott gives away big catch.

Years later I learned the pressure of a deadline when I took a job as a sports writer. Today, though, with the twenty-four hour "news" trend, I imagine that the majority of the stories we read are no more reliable than a fish story.