Monday, August 10, 2009

Witness to the events

Do you ever wonder what it felt like to be there, at the scene of the crime? Or as a witness to wrenching demographic or societal change. Well, wonder no more, because at this very moment there is playing out a significant disruption in the news industry, and how this disruption plays out, and how you obtain information and news, will change much about our knowledge and our culture in the future.

The obvious place to look first is at newspapers. Newspapers have been hit hard over the last decade as printing prices increased, the costs of raw material increased and the number of sources of news has skyrocketed. Every facet of the newspaper business has come under assault. Papers have responded by shrinking their staffs and coverage, reducing the number of pages, trying to do more online or even simply shifting to an online publication. The problem with most newspapers is that by the time you have the "news" in your hands, you've already read it online or seen it somewhere else. Newspapers are at risk of becoming what Time and Newsweek have been for years, a wrapup or reflection about news you already know. Time and Newsweek (and other such publications) will be doing "analysis" and reflection not on news from years ago, but weeks ago.

The newspaper business isn't the only "news" business that's hurting or changing. When is the last time you stopped to watch the iconic 6pm "Evening News"? I can remember when this was a not-to-miss event - sitting down with the family, watching the evening news and discussing it over dinner. Cronkite, Brinkley and a host of other famous news men captured our attention. Now, ratings are plummeting as fewer and fewer people "wait" to get their news at 6pm, or have the time to sit and watch only four or five significant stories when their news feeds can bring them up to date on a wide array of news in just a few minutes.

These two anecdotes point at a problem in the news business - like airline seats on a plane that just left, news has value at a point in time. As we have options to gain news when we want it and in the format and context that we want it, these older, more "fixed" options seem almost archaic. What the TV folks have done a good job with, and what the newspaper people are still figuring out, is that we can get news from anywhere, at any time, and they need to respond to that. That accounts for the increase in 24 hour news channels on television, which is another factor that decimates the evening news hour.

NPR carried a story this morning (August 10th) that indicated that many news organizations, especially newspapers, are actually meeting and discussing survival strategies. They know they have a problem and change has happened, now they are discussing how to innovate to survive.

Here are a couple of things to watch:

1. The increase of "local news" Newspapers and local TV can bring you news and
actually create news about local events that the majors can't cover. Soon your
high school football team may get the same coverage as the pros.
2. Tailored to your needs/tastes. As the sources of news increase, large news
organizations may become providers of stories rather than publishers, allowing
you or other firms to aggregate the news and "publish" it for you.
3. Segmentation. Some would claim that this is already happening - Fox news for
conservatives, MSNBC for liberals, etc. It is possible to image a news source
for elderly or retired people, just as we have financial news for investors.
4. Different voices. The major news sources have one value they can still sometimes
provide - objectivity, although even that seems to be declining. There is a
value in objectivity and rational discourse about the news. Too often even the
major, respected publications (NY Times, Wash Post) have taken perspectives or
reported with a more liberal or conservative slant than is warranted or
justified. If these major publications can't be trusted to provide the straight
news, then why not turn to bloggers and independent news sources. Perhaps
what we should ask is that everyone simply report the news from their perspective
as long as we also know their politics, beliefs and filters. Then we can
assemble the news we want to believe.
5. Get the news that's important to you. Don't care about sheep herding in
Mongolia? Could care less about natural gas prices in the Ukraine? Why pay for
it? You should be able to construct a "paper" or access to the news that is
tailored to your interest and needs. Read about what is important and relevant
to you, rather than what the NY Times declares is the news of the day.

These firms - the major papers and the folks who bring you news on television, are experimenting with many different facets of their business and business model to adapt to the changes the audience is demanding. What's important is that they experiment quickly and often, to tap into the new demands and expectations, rather than simply tinker around the edges. How we receive, analyze and take action on the news that is out there is changing, and the providers and channels for that content must change to survive.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:54 AM


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