Newspapers and magazines struggle to survive – Part 2

October 26, 2009

Troy Media News Exclusive

THE DEATH OF AN INDUSTRY – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

NEW YORK, Oct. 26, 2009/Troy Media/ — Newspapers were once the definitive source for news. Today, news and information can be accessed from a mixed bag of new media avenues.

The big question is: How credible are they? It’s often unclear who is reporting, interpreting, or fabricating news. This can be very scary, considering that horrific events that could affect everyone are not uniformly reported. Instead of getting hard facts, the public gets an odd stew of secondhand or interpreted news, or worse yet, distorted and even fabricated news.

Donald Mazzella, editorial director of Information Strategies, a Palisades Park, N.J. , publisher of online newsletters, is worried about the future of journalism. “The Internet has changed it, and the discipline and fact-checking — the hallmarks of print journalism — are being lost,” he explains.

Mazzella is a seasoned journalist with more than three of decades of experience working on newspapers and consumer and trade magazines.

“The print media demanded accuracy and attention to detail, a trait not found in most of the writing on the Internet,” Mazzella adds. “The decline of these print training grounds will have a profound impact on the quality of journalism.”

Generally, Mazzella finds that the new generation of journalism graduates writing for Web sites are too focused on the visual rather than the accuracy of the editorial content. “This has a negative impact,” he says, “because accurate content ought to be the journalist’s primary goal. National issues are reduced to personal accounts rather than the thoughtful approach of print media.”

Shakeout will get worse; confusion of information providers

A small number of news gatekeepers (producers and editors) are being replaced by a vast number of news sources and content creators, according to Tim O’Brien, owner of O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based communications consulting firm.

The shakeout among traditional newspapers and magazines will continue, says O’Brien, because most of the large media organizations have resisted change to such a degree that they are falling behind and may not survive.

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A good example of the evolution is Politico.com, says O’Brien. The site is a very well-respected news organization, staffed by many veteran newspaper reporters, and is a force for the future. Yet it only came to be because of the Internet.

The paradigm is shifting from a society that relied on a few information sources to interpret events to a world where there are dozens of information purveyors, he says. “This is a drastic, even revolutionary change,” he explains. “Information, especially news, was distributed through a few channels. Print media, and to some extent broadcast journalists, functioned like an oligarchy.” Now, the news and information delivery process has been democratized, according to O’Brien.

In concept, it sounds like a good idea, but in reality, it initially creates confusion, because consumers — the readers, listeners, and viewers — are forced to choose what they think is the best information source. Not a simple decision, by any stretch of the imagination.

Newspapers are stuck in old paradigm

The irony is that the very purveyors and interpreters of change — the news media – are resisting change. In the process, this once-powerful industry is digging its own grave.

Most of the decision-makers in print media are in denial, says Al DiGuido, CEO of Zeta Interactive, a New York City digital marketing and consulting company. “They’re resisting the digital age and all the changes that go along with it,” he explains. “They don’t realize that they can’t do business the way they have in the past. They can no longer depend upon the sale of newspapers on newsstands and generate advertising based upon sales. And they can’t build websites to further their presence and continue to sell advertising.”

It’s “narrow-minded thinking,” says DiGuido, because print media decision-makers have failed to recognize that the audience has changed, and even though many companies are advertising online, they’re doing it differently and not spending as much as they had in the past.

But the biggest mistake that traditional print media is making is failing to understand the consumers of information. “The average age of newspaper readers is getting older,” DiGuido adds. “The younger generation has found alternative sources for news. And they’re getting it instantly, from their cell phones, Blackberries and pocket-size PCs. Newspapers are way down on list of their information avenues.”

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Young media consumers are picking up news all day long, often as it’s happening. Newspapers and most network TV stations can’t top that. And often, the online media actually scoop print media and many network TV stations. “Michael Jackson’s death was broken online,” says DiGuido.

That had to be a crushing blow to print media, especially. More significantly, it was a telling indicator that a digital information delivery system is way beyond a testing prototype phase. There are companies that have indeed perfected digital platforms.

Like many digital-media promoters, DiGuido uses advertising-speak terms like “brand-building” when discussing print media’s failure to jump on the digital bandwagon.

No hard-core print reporter or editor would use news and advertising jargon in the same sentence. There is good reason why newsroom editors and reporters draw a clear, uncrossable Maginot line between editorial departments and advertising, marketing and sales departments. The irony is that advertising dollars not only pay everyone’s salaries, but were and still are the major, if not sole, determinant of profitability.

“The mistake the print guys made is sitting on their brands, their models, while the digital entrepreneurs are driving home the message that there is a way to deliver both news and advertising so that readers and advertisers reap rewards,” says DiGuido.

It sounds good, in principle, but “rewards” has to be defined. DiGuido is right if profitability is the primary goal. But if the ultimate goal is clear, definitive, objective reporting of news and information, then he’s making unsubstantiated assumptions about digital media’s ability to deliver sustained and reliable information along multiple channels.

 (Look for part 3 of this series and find out what veteran journalists have to say about the new digital information-delivery system.)