Behind the Incredibly Shrinking Media

Newspapers should focus on the needs of readers and become part of their routine. If they do this correctly, success should follow

In chronicling the media's contractions through @themediaisdying at Twitter, I've described these efforts as akin to watching Titanic and The Perfect Storm as if they were one movie. Ironically, it takes roughly 90 minutes each day to post and bear witness to the unprecedented implosion of the publishing industry. In doing this, two questions occur to me regularly: "How far through this movie are we?" and "Who's captaining this ship?"

Given the 1,600 layoffs newspaper publisher McClatchy (MNI) announced on Mar. 9 and the recent flurry of newspaper "deaths," mass firings, and additional uncertainty, from San Francisco to Philly, San Antonio to Denver and Milwaukee, it is clear that local papers are facing their demise. And when you realize that some of these papers have been around for more than a century, surviving multiple wars and economic upheavals, you know quickly that the current period is more than the economic crisis and loss of advertising confidence: Something is deeply "wrong" at the core.

In true Web 2.0 (crowdsourcing) style, I asked the 12,000-plus @themediaisdying network members to opine on the most influential reason for the current radical decline. Many of the usual suspects turned up: the Internet, technology, delayed reaction to change, fixed costs…the list goes on. All those continue to have an impact, of course, but they aren't, in my opinion, the fundamental reason.

It's Our Fault. We're Not Buying

If we're looking to affix blame, we should look no farther than to ourselves. At the most basic, we stopped "buying" it. Newer generations never grew up depending on newspapers—they'd consider it anachronistic to write the local paper a check for a subscription. At the same time, the "old media" still do not grasp the technological and sociological changes associated with this generational independence. There is a huge miscommunication between creator and consumer in terms of value propositions. Nothing has gone "wrong," per se, it is simply a changed balance of power. Creator and consumer are no longer tied to the other. The unchallenged power shift of the classified advertising section becoming Craigslist, Google (GOOG), et al., is a fascinating example of this. Publishers of a medium that is outdated by the time it hits the curb failed to act when these new entrants satisfied the consumer and stole the franchise.

Don't get me wrong—we need the media and journalism. Nor am I suggesting newspapers adopt the Radiohead "pay what you will" model. But with new technology and distribution options both need to drastically rethink themselves and redefine success. It's not just display ads and subscription models. Focus on the needs of those reading and become part of their routine. If you do this correctly, success should follow. And then, do not sit back! This is a changing world and technology is relentless—the speed at which information flows is increasing.

Tame Our Info Lust and Refocus

This brings us to the larger picture. What changed? What went wrong?

Nothing. The audience's attention capacity has not shrunk, but the demands on it did—exponentially. Without broad strokes or simplification, we humans are, for the most part, simple creatures that like to feel, well, good. That means being included, being liked, respected, taken care of, admired, satisfied. This "new world" brought us massive amounts of information but no new time to digest it, so we cognitively economize and focus on what's required. This isn't me saying humanity is destined to become a group of wandering watercooler idiots, but I think we can all agree we need to tame our info lust and refocus. The problem, therefore, is part generational, part dependent on our time-preservation mandates.

So where does this leave us? The days of information monopoly are over, and that's a fundamental shift. And the industry should be further along than it is. Rather than saying, "Here's everything we think is relevant to you—and we even put it in sections!" how about, "What do you want to know about today?" Or, for even greater efficiency: "Tick these boxes, and we'll make a newspaper just for you." Some might call this RSS and iGoogle while others, such as Hearst, think this will mean yet another device to lug about. Whatever your standpoint, the media have fantastic opportunities and challenges in front of it. It's truly the time of relevance or death.

It's not going to be easy or fast, but it's not impossible either. Give the audience what it wants, how it wants it, and then offer a hook. That may be exclusive, unique content or a reason to use your interface over others. This could also be design, portability, sharing functionality, whatever. Media, get into our daily routines any way you can and make sure you stay there. Once there, cultivate additional income through advertising that adds to, rather than detracts from, the reason we came to you. The new game is not about control; it is a call for utility, freedom, and the user experience. Perhaps the LA Daily News and The Bakersfield Californian have it right with audience-created models. Only time will tell.

Thanks to the @themediaisdying members with special thanks to: @popstat, @pkafka, @aptuscollab, @jellyhelm, @KathrynHallPR, @richardkendall; @dericjones; @JaneeGib, @tracy_barnes, (résumés), and (jobs).

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