Reading Antonia Zerbisias’ column today – she’s easily one of the best journalists in Canada, bar none – nailed the crisis facing modern journalism in North America today. Here’s the conundrum:
We’ve known for years now that journalism is becoming a lot like the entertainment industry in terms of content, much to the detriment of democracy and the Fifth Estate keeping an eye on the powerful. For years since the Web’s debut, newspaper publishers have been getting more and more nervous about craigslist.org, declining ad sales and ubiquitous sources of information online. So the argument goes that technology, specifically the Internet, is powering forward the decline in newspaper sales.
But what if it is more about the shift towards more mindless puff pieces now threatening the business?
Consider this point first. Free commuter dailies were introduced by major newspaper chains as a win-win scenario; you give away something for commuters to read, given that most people will choose free over pay most days of the week, pick-up rate soars, advertisers get steady sources of eyeballs, publishers get steady sources of revenue, shareholders are happy. Everybody’s happy except journalists.
Why? Journalism may seem to outsiders as if it was easy to do and cheap, but that’s really ignorant. Journalism is a costly business in an economic model where margins keep thinning further and further.
Now let’s consider what fills up these free dailies. Some hard news, largely cannibalized from the broadsheet, a few decent columns but a whole lot of fluff, especially near the back of the publication, i.e. The Britney/Paris/Tara/Lindsay section. Trouble is this is where a lot of people go first. It’s mindless entertainment.
The argument here has a chicken-or-the-egg smell to it: do newspapers create demand for fluff pieces or do readers love the fluff? It’s probably a bit of both, but the effect on journalism is toxic – the more easily digestible, brain-dead gossip you put into the paper, the more readers will go after the diversions. It’s like eating chocolate everyday – it’s really bad for you everyday but would you turn it down if you got it? Probably not.
Shareholders, always trying to maximize value, will push whatever makes the most profit for them. This stuff keeps them in the black, but it’s only foregoing the inevitable: the more you push cheap or even free gossip-rag material, the more people will turn away from content mediums that support a corporate bottom-line, i.e. paid broadsheets. This forces more journalists out of the business, so more fluff is pushed on the public, and so on.
Thing is, how can media companies make it work? The old ways can’t be supported anyone in a culture of free content online. But the new ways seem to be slowly destroying the whole purpose of corporate media anyway. The free commuter daily concept only really works in an environment where the parent company is awash in revenue streams that have a long-term base of support; name one media outlet in Canada nowadays that have these kinds of funds?