Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another One Bites The Digi Dust & The State of Media

The Ann Arbor News is the latest daily to take the plunge. After 174 years of doing business, the AAN will become AnnArbor.com, publishing web stories while still cranking out two print editions per week.

This really isn't news in Ann Arbor as the paper announced the decision in March. However, today's edition will be their last daily. Imagine being Geoff Larcom and having to write about it.

Revenues/profits are down and costs are up. And, after taking wallops to their wallets for several years now, dailies are essentially surrendering to the digital age.

We as media consumers have had it so good for so long that our expectations for 'free' online news have all but destroyed the metro daily. And folks like those at newspaperdeathwatch.com are watching intently.

The Rocky Mountain News. The Seattle Post Intelligencer. The Cincinnati Post...the list keeps growing. And, the guys/gals at The Onion (who I've been reading for over a decade now) have been having their laughs as well. And, as the folks at newspaperdeathwatch.com pointed out, The Onion's new video packages are dead-on. They have mastered the art of crafting media cliches and the ridiculously over-the-top way media tend to attack stories. This clip is classic. My favorite is 'Expert In a Suit.'

Video nearly killed the radio star, but the Internet is massacring print.

We can't underestimate television news' troubling role in this problem. As the late great Walter Cronkite was always so quick to note, the evening news and cable news programs currently dominating the industry have succumbed to the popularity of commentary. Unbiased reporting is slowly dying in the broadcast medium as most of the highest-rated news programs are based on 'infotainment.' I first heard that term on The Simpsons and laughed...no one is laughing anymore.

We as consumers have fallen for it. Watching the news can be 'boring' and 'hard,' but watching Bill O'Reilly bash Democrats and pausing to watch a TIVO'd Keith Olbermann rip Republicans is much more fun. While the shows are entertaining, their rhetoric is biased and at times hateful. The new stories are second-class citizens, afterthoughts to the personalities driving the ratings. I'm at the point where I can't watch any of it.

More and more media consumers are going to the web because we don't have to sit through commercials or listen to people vapidly insult each other. The place to deviate from that coverage used to be a good paper...when we were sick of watching poorly constructed or loosely written TV news, we could sift through our fishwraps and make our own decisions.

But, print is dying a very slow and agonizing death. It won't last in its current state. More dailies are going to focus on web content while publishing limited print editions just to survive. In our 'must have it now' age of news, journalists have to turn to Twitter and other web marketing/media tools to get there first. And the quality of coverage is suffering.

Yesterday's battle over video of Jordan Crawford's dunk over Lebron James was another example of how newspapers can't compete in today's media industry. TMZ originally planned to launch a video of their own at 6:45p.m. ET, but ESPN got a hold of video from ebaumnation.com and ran it before TMZ's self-created deadline. Ebaumnation posted it at 3:28p.m. ET and killed TMZ's exclusive. The story itself was weak and the video widely seen as a joke. It wasn't even a real story but nationwide competition forced a frenzied pace. How can any newspaper keep up with that?

They can't. That is why the future of media will continue to evolve/devolve towards the Net. If a media outlet doesn't meet our demands of immediacy, we give up on them. Even magazines are suffering...

Why wait a few weeks to get Sports Illustrated or Vanity Fair when I can poach websites until I feel satiated? The best articles regarding the life and times of Michael Jackson were written by Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth between 1994 to 2005. Orth is the widow of the late Tim Russert and a respected writer.


Her incredibly detailed and damning reports were hardly discussed as the media scrambled to track Michael Jackson's corpse around Los Angeles. The remains of his body became more important than the body of his life. MSNBC spoke with Orth in late June, but has since pulled the video...I have yet to find anything except a brief from The Huffington Post about her appearance. MSNBC and NBC have nothing available. It's sad, but it's indicative of the current media climate.

That's what it has come to. We have to settle for inferior news coverage as the media attempts to figure out how best to cash in on our demands for knowledge.

But, it's important to note that we are also to blame. The Ann Arbor News is effectively dying today because it wasn't enough for its readers anymore. They wanted more and advertisers followed the masses. It's our fault. Our demands are being met quicker, but our understanding of the news is eroding.

The next time you read a truly well-written, researched and unbiased article, email the writer and that person's editor to say thanks. It may not save their jobs or change the media industry, but it will remind those journalists why they got into the business in the first place. To make a difference while telling accurate and great stories.

Make sure they know you care. Because, if they don't think you do, they'll go where the money tells them to go. They will end up ignoring their duties and we will all be worse off for it.

2 comments:

Tim said...

I would argue that if AAN were to focus their print division on "truly well-written, researched and unbiased article" and leave the breaking news stuff for the web, they would hold appropriate audiences for each. Those looking for immediate news can jump online and if they find AAN's online site offers something they value they would put up with a few ads to view it. Likewise those looking for indepth reporting might continue subscribing to the print version of AAN and/or maybe they could offer an email subscription to all print subscribers as well.

I think the game is certainly changing. It has been changing for years. I don't see a lot of companies evolving, instead they're trying to fit their current models to work on the web. Square peg, round hole, ain't gonna happen. Rejection by users of any sort of "pay wall" for online content is going to continue because when I can get news from 1000 different places, you have to offer a pretty damn compelling reason for me to say "Ok, I'll pay to get it from you.".

Absolute necessary reading on this topic by Clay Shirky: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

byrnesbj said...

One unfortunate thing about the demise is the lack of choice and competition that will exist in the market. Writers are going to have to write impeccably well as some newspapers begin and continue to charge for online contents, so newcomers are going to have a harder time. Plus, the skeptic in me says that people will buy what they want to read, which is scary and discouraging at the same time. Will people be willing to pay for unbiased news?

Btw, I finally jumped on the blog bandwagon: http://byrnesbj.wordpress.com/