The communications business has its own version of the old chicken-and-egg question: Do media exist to serve readers and viewers, or to serve advertisers? A figurative drive along Interstate 35 highlights opposing answers to that question.
In Des Moines, “Our number one goal is to provide result-driven, multimedia solutions to our business clients,” Laura Hollingsworth, publisher of the Des Moines Register, said recently in announcing the latest round of job cuts in her organization. In other words, Iowa’s largest newspaper — pardon me, multimedia company — exists first and foremost as an advertising vehicle.
Further up I-35, news consumers can count themselves more fortunate. In the Twin Cities, leading news organizations at least pay lip service to the idea that the media exist to illuminate the citizenry.
From the Star Tribune: “Our company has a unique purpose. …We believe our newspaper and website should be at the heart of the community, dedicated to public service and fulfilling First Amendment responsibilities entrusted to us by the United States Constitution.” A dream answer for journalism purists.
From the Pioneer Press: “Our corporate mission is to be the leading provider of local news, information and services in our strategically located markets by continually expanding and leveraging our news-gathering resources.” Heavy on the corporate-speak, but expressing a commitment to news.
From MinnPost: “MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan enterprise whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota.” No doubt which master they’re serving.
‘Cost of entry’
Why do I bring this up? Because in the future, you’re likely to be getting less of your information from these organizations and others like them. There’s a business principle called “cost of entry.” In the old days, the cost of entry to the news business was high: you had to be able to buy a printing press or a broadcasting system.
In the Internet era, the cost of entry is low. You can build your own website, or pay someone a fairly modest amount to do it for you. More to the point, if you’re a business, you can create your own content and communicate directly with potential customers. This is called “content marketing,” and it’s one of the hottest trends in today’s advertising and marketing world.
Kohler, the Wisconsin-based kitchen and bath company, does a great job creating content that’s informative as well as engaging. Kohler’s website features dozens of videos that promote Kohler products while also offering useful ideas on home design, entertaining and lifestyle trends.
Yes, when you watch one of these videos, you’re basically watching a Kohler ad — but it’s presented in such a way as to make you feel that you’re also getting worthwhile information. It’s the kind of information that once you could have gotten only by reading your local newspaper, or perhaps a monthly home décor magazine. But newspapers and magazines no longer have a monopoly on that kind of information.
Increasingly, you’re going to be presented with an ever-expanding array of options for gathering information on products, lifestyle trends, financial services and much more. Much of this information will come not from independent news organizations, but from companies that stand to benefit from influencing you.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Why shouldn’t you pick up some painting tips from Valspar, or learn about the ins and outs of Roth IRAs from Fidelity? Those companies have real knowledge of the subject that can benefit you. But they also want you to think well of them and, ideally, buy their products.
In the future, you’re going to have many more sources of information to choose from. But you’ll also have to give a lot more time and thought to assessing the credibility and motivations of those sources. It’s the blessing and the curse of the new information age.