Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wane of traditional media leaves information gap

I’ve been slow to slip into Chicken Little mode on the question of whether the Internet will be the death of traditional media. People have asked me about that for at least 15 years now, and for the longest time I assured them the industry would always survive.
But whether it really is the Web or just a sign of the times we live in, there’s not much question anymore that the industry is in the fight of its life.
Blame the recession for some of that. All media rely heavily on advertising dollars, and those dollars aren’t as dependable during tough economic times.
But the bigger problem for the industry is that its readers, viewers and listeners simply don’t want to pay for information about their community anymore.
Even just a couple of decades ago, that would have been unthinkable. Local media outlets were virtually the only way anyone got reliable information about their community and the world. Most households had a subscription to at least one newspaper, a favourite radio station for catching the news of the moment, and a nightly TV newscast they rarely missed.
No more. Now, on-line news from around the world is at the fingertips of anyone who has an Internet connection - which is to say, virtually everyone.
Where once there were local newspapers read daily by almost everyone in town, now there are customized news feeds from thousands of different sources delivered directly to your e-mail inbox. Where once there were popular radio and TV newscasts providing the topics for that day’s water-cooler conversations, now it’s podcasts and YouTube videos and astounding footage from somebody’s cell phone camera.
And hey, maybe such competition will be a good thing in the long run for the traditional media that manage to stay in the game. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and those that make it through these deeply uncertain times will have a whole new set of strategies for staying relevant.
The impact in the short term, however - well, that’s just a little scary, and not only for people like me who work in the business. How will we talk to each other as a community about the things that matter if the day comes when none of us have any news sources in common?
The Internet is a marvellous vehicle for finding information you want. But what about the information you don’t know you want? Or the information that you ought to want, but aren’t likely to go looking for? Without traditional media, what is the mechanism for getting us news that we need to know?
Those questions go to the heart of what it means to be a community. Don’t get me wrong - I love living in a wired global village. But it’s still traditional media that covers local news best. It’s still traditional media that’s most effective at bringing us together in our own home towns to rally behind a cause, a concern, a crisis.
In the new age of on-line information, we can all become experts in the things that we take an interest in, and active participants in a virtual community of people around the world who think just like us. We can find all the stories we’d ever want to confirm what we already believe.
But our exposure to the stories that might challenge those beliefs, or promote new ways of thinking, will be greatly reduced. On the one hand, the Internet opens up the world as never before; on the other, it narrows it dramatically by placing us into skinny streams of information that don’t accommodate the flow of contrary thought.
Then there’s the fact of the on-line information itself, much of which stems from the reporting work of traditional media. I overheard a woman talking to a friend the other day about why she no longer bothered with a daily paper: “Everybody just gets their news on-line now.”
But much of that news comes from the newsrooms of traditional media, which heavily subsidize the cost of their on-line presence through their other operations. If those operations falter, the news as we know it will falter as well. We may like to gripe about the shortcomings of the media, but life without them is a frightening concept.
When Conrad Black ruled the roost in Canada, people were downright hysterical about the impact of concentrated media ownership on a free press, for what ultimately turned out to be just a blip in the business cycle. Alas, the real bogeyman has arrived.

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