The Undiscovered Symbiosis of Print and Online Media: Part 1
Print news, that venerable institution, is a medium in transition and sadly, in decline. The once-mighty newspaper has been steadily losing its market share, having entered the stage where page counts have thinned, and layoffs and buyouts have become epidemic. Though it is not the only cause of this decline, much can be attributed to the transition of readership to the online medium, and even more can be ascribed to a change in the audience’s expectations.
The contemporary readership has come to expect its news to be free and instant. For advertisers, the most valuable indicator of the readership’s desire for a certain brand is the paid subscription, and these are more difficult to achieve in the online environment, where free content abounds. Moreover, online subscribers expect to see fewer ads, not more. Print publications, and the advertisers that pay for them to exist, struggle to reach a consumer that has become ephemeral and unpredictable, and who does not linger on a web page as they would a magazine page – the least desirable target audience imaginable. Consequently, advertisers, already panicking about current economic woes, do not budget for advertising, diminishing the incomes of newspapers and magazines. Page counts drop, and online advertising, which was never all that lucrative in the first place, is even less so now. The bulk of advertising dollars came from classifieds, and those have migrated to the free online marketplaces, Kijiji and Craigslist. The paradigm has changed, the fallout has arrived.
Many of the digerati, Creative-Commons mavens and online commenters laud this impending development as a just retribution for the media companies. There are, of course, valid reasons for this sentiment, predominantly the disturbing hegemony resulting from the aggregation of smaller outlets into monolithic news empires. More importantly, changes in media have opened up a world of innovation and diversity in the free distribution of, and participation in the information society. It has created a free economy, which is beneficial to users in so many ways. However, if print publications are eradicated at the present pace, the period of transition will be one of struggle for many in the business of information distribution, from the bricks-and-mortar publishers to the bleeding-edge pioneers.
I enthusiastically embrace the media paradigm shift as a development that facilitates new opinions and new forms, that allows not only electronic media such as The Tyee and The Huffington Post, but the readers themselves to participate to the conversation long dominated by the traditional national and regional outlets. At the same time, major newspapers, with all their inherent problems and degradation, have much to offer, and are at this time, still integral to a healthy culture of exposition.
Traditional and new media increasingly need each other as the audience becomes fragmented. The old guard, with its big advertising dollars, can afford the talent and resources to consistently break the big stories. Though there are editorial struggles with those same financial backers, publishers are still credibly “raking the muck.” Smaller media comes up with fresh and insightful perspectives, and creates new audiences and writing talents, not only to the benefit of the audience, but to the large-scale media outlets on the lookout for talent and markets. Many of the successful news blogs write in response to (albeit with refreshing perspectives) events that the writers saw in the headlines. The diminishment of traditional media would result in an information gap, and new media would suffer as a result of its own success.
Conversely, small interactive media often breaks new stories that fly under the radar of big media. Through aggregation of its participants, smaller outlets and social networks can create enough buzz that big media must take notice of them, to their benefit. Take the issues of digital rights management or Net Neutrality for example. Such a groundswell of interest was mustered by the social networks, that larger outlets heard the noise, wrote about it, and it became a household word. A blogger with deep knowledge of their topic and a desire to communicate their issues can make these kinds of stories happen. The best Canadian example I can think of in this category is Internet legal expert Michael Geist.
The two levels of media need each other, and have become inextricably linked. If one of them fails due to starvation, it will have a detrimental effect on the other.