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Traditional media: Battered, but not giving up

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year or two trying to figure out new media. But lately, I’ve been devoting more thought to the old media.

Why? The same reason people gawk at a bad accident. The old media have been T-boned by the Internet, and they’re lying twisted and smoking on the shoulder of the information superhighway.

For nearly 100 years, they’ve been at the core of communication in this country: newspapers, magazines, radio and TV.  They told us what was happening in our communities, they delivered our commercial messages, they entertained and informed us.

But the old media went over the cliff a few years ago. Now they’re like Wile E. Coyote, frantically running in place just before the bottom drops out from under them.

The list of cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs in the traditional media just since this summer would take up more space than I have in this post. Gannett and McClatchy, two of the nation’s top three newspaper publishers, each cut 10 percent of their workforce earlier this year — then came back a few months later with a second 10 percent cut. Both companies have lost more than 90 percent of their peak stock-market value. Weekly newspapers are beginning to fold, and at some point, we’ll see daily papers begin to go under.

Time, Conde Nast, Hearst and other magazine publishers have closed titles and cut jobs by the hundreds. Advertising pages are down sharply. TV stations nationwide are cutting production staff — and even, in some cases, high-profile on-air personalities.

Yet despite all their problems, the traditional media remain a critically important piece of both public and commercial dialogue. They still provide the basic reporting that the blogosphere feeds off, and they have a mass that outweighs all but the biggest national blogs and Web sites (some of which are starting to develop their own reporting resources, but that’s another story).

For marketers like me, these turbulent times pose a challenge. How does one set priorities between new and old media? Is it better to focus resources on the traditional media, hoping they’ll find your story or product interesting enough to cover? Or would it be better to create a Web site or an e-marketing campaign, and try to draw people to your message that way?

My view is that the traditional media are still important, and it would be unwise for marketers to ignore them in an overall marketing plan, both for advertising and public relations. But the relationships will be different than they were even a few years ago. Here are some changes I think we’ll be seeing.

Aggregation is more important than ever.
Getting your story out through news services and Web aggregators is the best way to get it in front of the most people. That’s always been true, but as individual media outlets cut back their own staffs, they’ll rely even more on newswire and aggregation sources. And in the Internet era, a story that goes out through an aggregator can have long, long legs.

The reporters and editors who remain are harried and worried. They’ve seen colleagues leave or get the ax, and they wonder if they’re next. They’re working harder than ever, yet they feel as if nobody on the business side has figured out how to turn the ship around. Unless they’re within a few years of retirement, they’re probably working on a Plan B for their career.

I’m not yet sure how this translates into practice. In recent years, it’s been common for critics to make dismissive comments accusing the news media of merely regurgitating press releases. Having spent 20 years in the business, I can tell you emphatically that those charges are false — at least, for the quality news outlets I worked at.

But as the traditional media continue to slash their own newsgathering capacity, it’s possible that regurgitating press releases will start to look like a viable option to them.

News nuggets get more attention than in-depth information. With few exceptions, the traditional media — newspapers, TV and magazines — believe that the news consumer is pressed for time and unwilling to digest lengthy items. They’re looking for summaries, lists, nuggets, news of the weird — anything they can slot into a formatted news report. As they rely on fewer people to produce their products, this kind of fill-in-the-blank formatting will be a bigger piece of their overall output.

Local is king. A few major media outlets in the New York-D.C. axis will continue to be important in leading the national dialogue. But in regional markets — even top 20 markets like Houston, Minneapolis and Denver — producers and editors are adopting a relentlessly local focus.

If you’re trying to get their attention for a product or service that isn’t produced in their area, you’ve got to clear a much higher hurdle these days.

Marketers and the news media have always had a symbiotic relationship. But that relationship, which has run in the same comfortable channels for the last half-century, is changing in ways that we haven’t even realized yet.

I think it’s clear that the marketers are going to be less at the mercy of the media. In the old days, there were few options for going around the media gatekeepers. Not so any more.

I don’t see any signs that the traditional media are giving up. Although battered, they’re still fighting.

But Wile E. Coyote never gave up, either — and that didn’t stop him from getting conked regularly by the latest Acme anvil. I’m afraid there are a few more anvils ahead for the traditional media.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/17/2008 - 11:58 am.

    “New Media” may appear to have changed everything forever, but they still can’t make any money. The future belongs to those who figure out how to do that, much as William Randolph Hearst was one of the first people to figure out how to make money killing a lot of trees every day. It is, after all, still a business – and right now no one is doing well at it.

    Having thought about this a lot and made one abortive attempt at solving the problem, I can tell you it’s a difficult one. But it definitely starts with a better understanding of what information the readers want and finding ways to deliver it to them. News is part of that, but a big missing hunk can pay the bills.

    As you said, local is the key to what’s left for traditional or legacy media. The ability to search and find what you want means that the ‘net can deliver local, too, once it puts its mind to it. I’m sure that’s the secret.

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 11/17/2008 - 12:19 pm.

    You’re right, Erik — monetizing the Web is key, and right now I don’t see anyone doing it successfully for general news and entertainment.

    Some people are making money online for specialized services — porn, music and so forth. The WSJ, alone among the traditional media, has successfully gotten people to pay for online content.

    But Google and the other search engines rely on the traditional media for much of their content, yet they’re killing the geese that lay those golden eggs for them.

  3. Submitted by Tom Poe on 11/17/2008 - 03:50 pm.

    Today is probably a good day to revisit monetizing of the Web. First thing you will see is the vote to return the “white spaces” (think empty channels on your tv) to the public. Tomorrow’s networks will be ultra broadband networks that enable hot spots to have a range of several miles. A newspaper that broadcasts their content electronically across the city in the same fashion our present day tv does. We can buy a device to receive and display the electronic newspaper on our tv. We can buy a device to receive and display the electronic newspaper on our cell phone, our laptop, our PDA, our blackberry, our digital radio, our car radio/video device.

    So, the newspaper becomes a 21st century “channel”. Syndicated across the world. How’s that for monetization? And, it’s less than a year away. Is MinnPost ready?

  4. Submitted by Ross Williams on 11/17/2008 - 04:58 pm.

    Very few stories in the MSM are driven by reporters. Take a look at the headlines on the NYT web site and almost all of them were generated by public relations or other public information operations. Those operations use the mainstream media as an efficient way to distribute their stories now. But, if it goes away, they will find other ways to get those stories out.

    But the real challenge facing the MSM mass media is that they are incredibly inefficient advertising forums for most products. And that, afterall, is the MSM’s real business, advertising. Businesses are paying for thousands/millions of “eyeballs” that are very unlikely to be interested in their product.

    That said, it is the business of advertising that is likely to be the most missed as MSM disappears. Online advertising for brick and mortar businesses just isn’t very effective and its not clear that it ever will be. The struggles of businesses that have online competition are going to grow. Why drive to a mall when UPS will deliver it?

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