What are your main sources for news and information?
I can tell you now that you and I are not typical in our preferences. The fact that you are reading this means you are one of about 13 million Americans who read blogs. And I’ll wager that you also get a lot of your straight news from sources on the internet as well.
But what of the rest of America? The most recent Pew survey finds that fully one third of us get most of our news online. This is actually a decline from their last survey done in 2004. The rest of America gets some of their news online but still rely on newspapers (40%) and broadcast TV to become informed with the old “Big Three” nets of ABC, CBS, and NBC still able to gather 28% of us in front of the tube on any given night.
The Pew Survey linked above gives a graphic and shocking picture of the changing information gathering habits of Americans over the last decade and a half. Perhaps most troubling is that nearly 20% of us apparently don’t bother to inform ourselves at all. Broken down by age group, it boggles the mind to think that 27% of 18-29 year olds don’t find it important enough – despite the dizzying number of news sources available – to watch or read hardly any news at all.
Should we worry about this? Every generation I’m aware of has looked at the generation coming behind it and wailed about how the republic will go to hell and a handbasket when the goofballs are old enough to run things. In the end, the goofballs grow up and things continue as they always have – somewhere between crisis and disaster. The world ain’t peaches and cream now and to posit the notion that it will get much better or much worse based on what somebody is like in their late teens or early 20’s usually comes a cropper of reality. The kids fall in love, marry, have kids of their own, and by sheer force of necessity, become responsible (or nearly so) citizens of the American republic. Some of them even remain liberal Democrats and the country survives although most become rabid Republicans after receiving their first paycheck and seeing how much the government takes out in taxes.
So the lack of interest by the current generation in the world around them should not be taken to heart. Times change, no more so than for the media business. After 50 years of concentration, a gigantic revolution is underway that presages a period where massive changes in not only the way we get our news but in the kinds of companies that deliver the news product will alter lifetsyles as well as our lives.
It is newspapers that are suffering the most in this revolutionary period. And, as this piece in the New York Times about the demise of news giant Knight Ridder makes clear, the reason is the same thing that killed the dinosaurs; utter and complete befuddlement as to what is killing them:
Today, many people in the newspaper industry are still scratching their heads over how and why a company with relatively high profit margins and a trophy case of 85 Pulitzer Prizes allowed itself to be wiped off the media landscape.
â€œCould anyone imagine 10 years ago saying that in 10 years, Knight Ridder would not exist?â€ asked Jay T. Harris, a former publisher for Knight Ridder at The San Jose Mercury News who quit in 2001 rather than make cuts that the company sought. â€œIt was one of the strongest newspaper companies in America. How could you have a hand like that and play it in such a way that you would end up losing everything?â€
The dismantling of Knight Ridder is a study of the hurdles facing publicly traded newspaper companies in a time of seismic change in the industry. The migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet, as well as rising costs and falling revenue, are threatening the financial well-being â€” even the very existence â€” of some of the industryâ€™s most storied brand names.
Jeff Jarvis has been singing this song longer than almost anyone. His analysis – so simple yet so devastating – makes one wonder if there is any hope at all for “dead tree” publications who continue to lumber toward their own apocalypse:
1. Value: You have to provide value or, obviously, youâ€™re worthless. And today in news and media, value is redefined. Value no longer includes delivering the commodity news everyone already told me. But value does now include listening to me and helping me create media alongside you. And value always equates to credibility.
2. Customers: In most media, you will still have two customer bases: the people and the advertisers. You have to serve a public large enough to serve to advertisers and you have to give advertisers a competitive return on investment and the means means to measure and prove that you did. Only now, you have more competitors â€” unless you chose to turn them into partners in a network â€” and some of those competitors are working for free.
3. Efficiency: There is no rule of journalism that says newsrooms and newspapers should operate as they always have. As Iâ€™ve said often, they must shed inefficiencies and resources put to commodities and ego and must find their true value. Return to No. 1.
It’s all about eyeballs. Wherever enough of them gather, the hucksters aren’t far behind. But as Jarvis points out, the eyeballs are not only getting harder to count, they’re also becoming rather demanding and selective in where they wander to. They want more than “news everyone already told me.” The value of the news is now shared between the actual information imparted and the way in which it is delivered. Is it easy to access? Do I have to wait 15 minutes until the network news sees fit to tell me about the Jon Benet story? Or can I just search and click to satisfy my aching eyeballs?
And what of a medium where customers are as important as advertisers? Who woulda thunk it? And just because you have the latest gew gaws and gizmos in the newsroom, does that mean that you’ve “modernized” and made “efficiencies?”
Knight Ridder just didn’t get it. In fact, the very process of their destruction reveals that not only didn’t they get it, it was depressing them that they didn’t even know what questions to ask:
When the sale was announced in March, Mr. Ridder said that Mr. Sherman had backed him into a corner. He said he was â€œupsetâ€ and â€œdepressed,â€ and when the sale became final in June, he pronounced the day a sad one.
Nearly three dozen potential buyers were contacted when Knight Ridder went on the block, and 21 responded. All but two took a pass. (In addition to McClatchy, a consortium of private-equity firms stepped forward but never made a final offer.)
Analysts concluded that the paucity of bidders suggested there was no longer a market for big newspaper groups as a whole. But McClatchyâ€™s ability to sell a dozen of the Knight Ridder papers after the sale indicated that individual newspapers had value. â€œNo one would have anticipated that a year ago,â€ said Lauren Rich Fine, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. â€œA year ago there was a presumption that Gannett and Tribune were still buyers of groups of newspapers and that private equity would be very interested, too.â€
I personally haven’t read a Chicago Tribune or Sun Times since last October when I bought a copy of both papers the day after the Sox won the World Series. I didn’t buy them to read but to save as historical curiosities. I had long since gotten most of the information on the game that I wanted to from on line sources. I had long since digested the replays over and over again on Sportscenter. I had already read the celebratory columns appearing in the newspapers in their on line editions.
Is this the future of newspapers? I certainly hope not. I know I am missing a lot by not buying the dead tree editions of both of those estimable news sources. And I hope that after this current shakedown in the business is done, what emerges will be a more consumer oriented, reliable, and yes less biased source for information.
The nation needs newspapers – in whatever form they take. Let’s hope that we can save something of this tradition so that the kind of in-depth look at issues and people we have come to expect on a daily basis from journalists will have an outlet that is as widely available as it is today.