The future of Mainstream Media in today’s world of citizen journalism…

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Why the decline of traditional Main Stream Media?

Why the decline of Mainstream Media? This question has been argued and tossed around in many a media organization’s board room over the course of the last five years. Clearly, for news organizations in particular, time is running out to find a solution that will allow the economics to work.

From a supply perspective, the proliferation of choice and the democratization of media platforms have rendered the “space” extremely congested. There is a niche for everything and, unfortunately, one could argue that the objectivity of “serious” and researched news is becoming a niche as well. The ability for serious news organizations such as NPR, the BBC or CNN to maintain worldwide coverage, much less afford overseas news bureaus, is virtually a luxury of the past. Consequently, the number of in-depth investigations has been declining in quantity and in quality.

From the perspective of the consumer, over the course of the last 20-30 years, the sources of information have been corrupted either by overt financial concerns and objectives, or by the lowest common denominator style salesmanship (epitomized by the ‘entertainment’ of News of the World and other such rags). A 2001 article from LA Times offered a good recap [proof enough that the subject has been around].

So what are the main issues?

Certainly, the internet has played a role in unfurling the problem. The democratization of journalism is, to my mind, just a reaction to the lack of the right offer. Consumers, pressured for time, have largely rejected standard hour programming. In virtually every household, the television is competing against the computer, much less the IPOD — although the radio seems to be holding its own. In the realm of news, consumers today are looking for customized information, in byte sizes. For many, the relationship of a consumer with his or her local news team is visceral. The consumer is looking for some form of connection – because the news is feeding the psyche, helping to rationalize events around him or herself. There is, in this relationship, an inherent wish to believe it is truthful — i.e. that the news is authentic. And I would argue that the problem of news organizations can be quickly related to the problem of established brands: how to stay authentic, flexible, customized and in touch with its [mass] consumer? As Noam Chomsky says in his article “What makes Mainstream Mainstream?“, media organizations have typically relegated the consumer to be passive. He writes, the consumers’ “…job is to be ‘spectators,’ not ‘participants.'” So, too, say many brands.

For news organizations, it strikes me that the main question is: What is news for?

Local Culture. Today, it seems that news has reduced itself in large part to a form of entertainment, completely hamstrung by viewer ratings. By extension, news is feeding water cooler talk: sports results, weather forecasts (hardly news) and local sensational events. News organizations are intrinsically local and their bias on news reports is strongly linked to the local point of view such that, with a worldwide satellite dish in your home, you can find two widely different sides to many of the international stories [when/if they are covered, that is].

Learning. If encouraging reading (and writing) were part of the objective of news and printed media, then why has the standard of writing plummeted (you can find English mistakes on the front page of any major reputable newspaper, including the Financial Times virtually daily).

Advancement. If, more nobly, the goal of news is the advancement of society, then it would seem that the mass majority of people are tuning out. The case is still made that, by having the coverage of certain genocidal regimes, enough international outcry will mobilize an international intervention. In this regard, from a western standpoint, “serious” news is more or less a portal of democracy.

Ted Turner said, in one of his typically brazen interviews, that such information and news is important. Unfortunately, he used weather as the perfect example (and not only is weather not news, it is highly speculative) since, with this information you can know whether to wear a raincoat, etc. Not exactly newsworthy news or 100% accurate.

Turner also cited in this video (which I will endeavour to post when I find it on YouTube), that news coverage helped to uncover Hitler. However, news neither uncovered Hitler, nor helped to sway or stop him. And, news coverage has not helped the continuing carnage and tyranny in many African countries. Propaganda, on the other hand, plays a whole other role in this type of context.

No doubt that Turner is a great philanthropist and was a business titan. Where Turner’s vision has taken on a whole new meaning today, he said back in this late 1970s interview, that “we all can learn from each other.” This notion of collaboration is highly interesting in today’s context of citizen journalism and web 2.0. Maybe we just have to learn from each other.

If, as some say, news is the first day of writing history… sports and weather have no place in that frame. The important notion for news organizations to grasp is that they need to provide meaning. News should be able to connect and interact with its audience. Of course, news needs to be pertinent and researched. But, above all, news should have sense. Sense to help progress our society. Sense, such that its viewers learn and grow. The BBC (and NPR) have this component in their genes — but typically have been too stand-off to interface with its audience. So, the big news agencies are going to have to learn to lose some control, engage with their audience (i.e. work with citizen journalists) and in the meantime focus on providing a meaningful message. Over time, what will matter is not the quantity of people watching the BBC (although that is a critical part of the economic equation today), but on the quality of the people watching: the opinion leaders, the community heads, the bloggers and godfathers of viral messages… Clearly, the new media department at the BBC is making headway and, once the dust settles, hopefully, they and enough of the “serious” stations can find their place in providing meaningful, sensible and objective news for what is, now, a worldwide audience.

4 Comments, RSS

  1. Mark

    Don’t even get me started… as one who has been trying persistently to sell movie scripts into this studio system. And with friends who are mainstream musicians who have been pushed out by the internal development of artists based on perceived marketability rather than talent or real inspiration.

    The internet presents accessibility for us as artists, but we can’t compete with the chaos. I believe new platforms will emerge, and are emerging, that will be known again for quality instead of cost effective clearing houses, and will somehow allow for real compensation for talent.

    As to news, the election here has turned into a battle between Fox and MSNBC – to see who can influence the most voters. MSNBC seeking to route out truths and FOX using loud music and bright colors mixed with carefully researched words and phrases – that don’t necessarily have anything to do with reality. Truly amazing. Amazing they are pulling it off again. And, I would argue, criminal. If Sarah Palin winds up president, the world truly is in trouble. A woman who just got her passport this year, having never left the continent. A woman who described herself as a “pitbull with lipstick” who loves guns… a woman who tried to have the book, “Are You There God It’s Me Margret” banned from her public library. America. Awesome…

    Living in some crazy times, my friend. Have to keep the hope alive and keep working for Obama.

  2. Anonymous

    The reality is that the role of a media company is to provide profits to its shareholders.

    In most markets, there is a clear opportunity for broad based mass market providers and niche high end providers. People in the middle usually get squeezed.

    The reality is that despite their serious journalism, places like the NY Times were still in the middle given their coverage of sports, etc. (which could never rival the Post).

    My instinct is that there is a niche market for serious news and high end publications like The Economist, The New Yorker and the Washington Post will move further into the high end and find a profitable niche there – not because “they need to provide meaning” but because it’s their comparative advantage and there is a market for smart news and analysis.

  3. Minter

    @mark: thanks for your words … quite agree. Polemicizing the elections to gain viewership — and worse to corral voters — is a sad state of affairs… On the Election front, it’s getting down to the wire. The fact that it’s tight should not be new news… it generally always is in a two party reasonably democratic state! In any event, close at this stage will keep the candidates on their toes and hopefully will galvanize a good democratic turn out (hopefully there are not too many scandals in vote counting).

    @Steve: thanks for the link

    @anonymous: point taken about the niche market. Upmarket, elite products and services have proven to be impervious to the current crisis. But, I still think they will need to provide meaningful content!

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