Before I kick off the first installment of the Dot Com Hangover piece, I wanted to share some thoughts I had late last night as I was driving home from work. I began to think about the forces acting on the news media these days and the market conditions and audience factors driving those forces...
So, What are some of these forces that are acting on the news media today?
- Increased competition - More channels, more alternatives
- Problems with the money equation - For broadcast news, this concerns declining ratings and decreased advertiser loyalty
- Increased pressure to be "first" - Timing is being emphasized over quality and trustworthiness. Driving this is #2 above.
- Increased consumer demand for transparency - Scandals, lack of trust and decreased accuracy are driving consumers to want to peek under the hood. They want to see the sausage being made, so they can make educated judgments on who is and isn't trustworthy. (Do you hear me, Dan Rather?)
- Fragmentation of media audiences and an increased number of choices open to consumers - See #2 above.
- Diffusion of talent and trustworthy names in news - Big names are being lured away to other networks. The defections are coming with increased frequency and impact.
- Obsolescence of the concept of "public airwaves" - The question of whether terrestrial television and radio stations need to serve the public interest anymore is up in the air, given that the set of conditions that prevailed at the time the concept was born are no longer.
Given all these forces acting on today's news media, what will "the fourth branch of the government" look like in 10 years? I've got a theory.
Before I go out on a limb, let's examine each one of the forces I just highlighted, all of which are acting on the news media in a big way.
Increased competition is a given. Thirty years ago, people tended to get their news from one of three network news programs, maybe a couple newspapers they could buy locally, a few terrestrial radio stations and word of mouth. These days, I can get information from cable news networks, the Internet sites of almost any newspaper, radio station or independent news source, satellite radio, news magazines - really from any combination of nearly limitless sources available to me today. Increased competition has bearing on every of the other points I highlighted earlier, and it's driven by decreased costs of publishing, increased ease of publishing and thus the proliferation of channels. Think about it - if you wanted to publish a newspaper 30 years ago, your hard cost investment would be huge. Desktop publishing changed all that, and as I demonstrated 10 years ago, you can start a newspaper on a shoestring budget with little more than a computer. The same thing happened to magazines, which is why we saw such a huge explosion of special interest magazines over the past few decades. And if you want a website or blog? All you need is a computer, an ISP and a point of view. It's no surprise that there are so many choices open to today's media consumer.
The Money Equation
Now, why are broadcast news outlets having problems with the money equation? It's mostly a function of the increased number of media choices. We all know that TV ratings have declined pretty much across the board for many years now. TV news is no exception. And if you can't capture audience as well as you once could, advertisers pay less to run with you. And the advertisers you do have gain leverage over you and your advertising rates, simply by merit of the number of choices open to media buyers. If they think costs are out of line, it's easy to find another news channel in which to run. This gives them the leverage they need to fight off price increases. It's pretty simple.
The Importance of Being First
About that increased pressure to be "first." I've been writing about this for a while - about a dozen years to be exact. I wrote a paper on this concept in college for a mass communications class. This isn't going away. With all the media choices open to media consumers, competition means getting the story ahead of your competitors so you can reap the rewards of the audiences flocking to the first guy with anything to report. This is so important to the news media that often being first trumps the notion of being accurate. In their efforts to be first, news media often get it wrong, which has the exact opposite of the desired affect on one's audience. And being first is a tough thing to do these days, especially in an age when someone can get a story up on their website in minutes or seconds. So more corners are cut, the journalism gets sloppy and trust erodes.
Which leads me to my next point. It dovetails with the erosion of trust. Now that consumers are becoming more aware of how often and to what extent the mainstream news media get it wrong, they increasingly want to know more about how the sausage is made. Years ago, did we care much about how 60 Minutes put its stories together? Not really. But right now, we're seeing a systematic and thorough dissection of that process in the wake of a scandal. We have political bloggers, who are taking apart these processes, exposing the screwups, the biases and generally acting like thousands and thousands of self-appointed ombudsmen. Now that the public is starting to see the inner workings of the sausageworks, they want it more and more, which is why transparency is becoming more and more important every day. Consumers demand transparency from news organizations, the politicians that represent them in government, from companies they do business with - transparency is quickly becoming a consumer expectation because it helps consumers figure out who is worthy of their trust.
Loyalty in a Fragmented Media Landscape
Trustworthiness is so important because it drives loyalty. Why do most of the broadcast and cable news outlets stake their brand on trust? We see it every day - "The most trusted news organization..." etc. There's only one way for a broadcast news organization to generate significant loyalty (and thus, consumption), and that's through consistently trustworthy news reporting. Trustworthiness is the Camel Cash of news products - the thing that keeps you coming back for more without switching. And given today's fragmented media environment, trustworthiness is king. After all, if you get burned with inaccurate or slanted reporting often enough, you're likely to seek out new outlets of news information.
Where's the Talent?
Trustworthiness does not have to be specific to a news organization's brand, however. It can rub off on the reporters and news anchors who give us the news every day. And there's nothing keeping these personalities confined to one news organization. This notion, combined with free market forces, are why we see many high-profile defections of news personalities. Paula Zahn, Greta Van Susteren, Aaron Brown - it makes news when news organization poach trusted anchors and news personalities from one another. And there are more news outlets today and the number keeps growing. Students of journalism are confronted by some interesting choices when setting out to make a career in reporting, especially as they're faced with long hours, odd schedules and low-paying reporting jobs. Such factors make reporting jobs unattractive to all but the most dedicated aspiring journalists. There's a dearth of talent in news these days, brought on by the factors I described above - low pay for intense work, dispersion of talent due to the increasing number of news outlets, and a general lack of respect for the profession. (Just take a frank look at how news reporters are portayed in pop culture - does anyone really respect journalists much anymore?)
Goodbye, Bandwith Limitations
The last force acting on the news media that I'd like to discuss is the notion of the obsolescence of the concept of "public airwaves." The FCC's jurisdiction over broadcaster exists mostly due to the idea that broadcasters need to serve the public interest because they occupy public airwaves with their broadcasts. But this whole concept is becoming obsolete with the advancement of news outlets in the digital age of (theoretically) unlimited bandwidth. Terrestrial television stations broadcast on bandwidth that is limited by the number of frequencies that can reliably broadcast in a given geographic area. But no such bandwidth restraints exist for cable, satellite, the Internet, or any number of new media channels open to the consumer. We're moving toward a less bandwith-constrained world, and the argument that something like the FCC needs to regulate broadcasts to preserve the public interest is becoming less and less compelling every day. How long before the concept becomes completely obsolete?
Connecting the Dots
What does all of this add up to? It's obvious that these forces will shape the news media landscape. Personally, I think we'll see a good deal of sweeping and disruptive change in the next ten years. But what will the news media look like in ten years?
To answer this question, I argue that we need to consult the history books. If you remember Oliver Wendell Holmes' 1919 dissent in the Abrams vs. U.S. case, he advanced the notion of a "marketplace of ideas" in which natural market forces caused the truth to arise out of competition. Look at your own attitudes toward the news media and how they've evolved over the past several years. Have you come to be less trusting in the mainstream news media? Do you consume more in an effort to confirm a version of the facts? If you do, your consumption habits are indicative of a return to Holmes' Marketplace of Ideas.
The Marketplace of Ideas never really had a chance in a limited-bandwidth world. Anything that constricted the flow of ideas, including a limited number of broadcast outlets due to bandwidth constraints, meant functioning under an oligopoly where a handful of major players set the news agenda and quickly advanced their versions of the facts into the consciousness of consumers. But that's all changing now, isn't it? The oligopoly is breaking down. Today, I can find online news aggregators that give me hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of competing versions of the same news story. I can see the vetting of the facts (and thus, the truth) in action and in near-real time. And I'm making my decisions about what to believe based on a much larger number of choices. I can even participate in that vetting of the truth by lending my opinion to the marketplace via online forums, including message boards, discussion groups, blogging and much more. So whereas the Marketplace of Ideas never had a chance in a world with restrictive bandwidth constraints, it's experiencing a renaissance in an era of unlimited bandwidth.
The truth is that news is becoming an institution that is less dependent on oligopolies and monolithic news organizations that once dominated the collective consumer consciousness. The talking heads are losing their grasp on public opinion as the news becomes more a product of consumer participation and marketplace-driven evolution of the facts surrounding a news story. In short, look for the institution of news media to become more decentralized, more reliant on diversity of opinion, and more actively influenced by the input of the consumer.
Does this threaten how the news functions in a democracy? No. On the contrary, a more decentralized model encourages stakeholders to participate in the process to an extent that hasn't been seen since the days of the pamphleteers. Only now, technology bolsters the marketplace and exposes us all to a more rigorous assessment of the truth. We have become more active participants in the process in the past ten years, and the trend toward more active participation will continue, accelerated by communications technology.
I can picture waking up one morning in 2014 and, on my way to work, using a mobile device to participate in the process. I might use this device to consult with the people and news organizations I find to be the most consistently accurate and trustworthy. And then I might use the device to join in conversations surrounding the stories of the day, contributing to the vetting of the facts, the assessment of the implications of those facts and formulating opinions. Finally, I may inject my own news into the marketplace, provided I've experienced something first-hand that people might consider newsworthy, and thus start a new thread of conversations.
The age of the citizen-journalist is here. The next ten years will bring technology that will accelerate the willingness of citizens to participate in the newsgathering (and news-vetting) process. The Marketplace of Ideas has been reborn.