Friday, December 1, 2017

Twin Crises: Traditional Media and Digital Media

It turns out that crisis in the world of media is an equal opportunity employer. Organizations and people on both the digital side of the business and its analog ancestors are feeling the pain, though for different reasons. A recent talk given by by Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne served as the impetus for this post, and I’ll share my notes from that talk in a bit. 

My old school handwritten notes from Andrew Coyne's recent talk
at Innis College, University of Toronto

Coyne draws a crucial link between the crisis in the media and the current crisis in the public and political spheres, where the left and the right couldn’t be further apart and the prospects for anything even resembling consensus or compromise are grim indeed.

But first some context for our look at the duelling crises in the mediascape. On the one hand we’ve got the race to the bottom of advertising-based digital business models, in which even the most high profile, highly trafficked sites such as BuzzFeed, Vice, and Mashable, are feeling the pain as they miss revenue targets, despite, in most cases, continuing growth in users and clicks.

On the other hand we’ve got the ongoing erosion of traditional media’s revenue stream, particularly with newspapers, as seen in the chart below.

Source: The Economist

Whether it’s in print, analog, or digital, much of the talk now is around the viability of advertising-business models as the way forward for a dramatically reconfigured media landscape. Now it’s abundance, not the scarcity of column inches or the broadcast dial that is the rule. And on top of that, those once considered amateurs or non-experts are able to command audience and in turn dollars.

So what’s next for the besieged components of the media and entertainment industries? We’ve all become so accustomed to the ‘free’ content, which comes in a few basic forms: ad-supported, freemium-supported, pirated, and non-monetized i.e. labor of personal interest/love. If I’ve missed any, let me know.

Some say, that despite the runaway success of Netflix, and on a global scale, that ad-supported OTT television may well be the future. There’s also a compelling argument being made for a move away from ad-supported publishing online.

A key culprit in the digital world is what Marc Pritchard, global head of marketing  for P&G, one of the world’s biggest advertisers, calls the fraudulent media supply chain, littered with fake clicks, bots, and content that just isn’t brand safe. “We had substantial waste in a fraudulent media supply chain", Pritchard has pointed out. "As little as 25% of the money spent in digital media actually made it to consumers. But digital is now a $200bn industry. We have to stop giving digital media a pass and insist it grow up.” 

Of course these are just the broadest of brush strokes to provide some context for the complex scenarios that have led to a media industry fighting a battle on several fronts, but the gist is pretty clear: The last 10 years or so have been devastating to legacy media, the houses of the digital giants are anything but clean, and things are far from settled in terms of business models.

And with that, my notes, in point form, from the recent talk given by journalist Andrew Coyne at the University of Toronto, entitled: Crisis in the Media: Causes, Consequences, and Cures

A brief history of the internet and news:
  •        The cost of distribution became almost zero
  •        The speed and updateability of electronic media
  •        Anyone could publish, whether blogger or legit media organization
  •        The rise of global news brands, such as Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

On the upheaval that followed:
  • “We have ourselves to blame”, said Coyne. “A lot of our ills are self-inflicted. We made lousy websites, then lousy iPad apps. Craigslist then Facebook and Google got the ad dollars because they built a better mousetrap.”

On the price charged for newspapers:
  • “We never charged readers more than about 25% of the actual cost. Ads paid for the rest. And this made us vulnerable.”
  • William Thorsell of The Globe & Mail said: “We’re not in the business of selling you newspapers, we’re in the business of buying your time.”

On Fake News: A Red Herring?
  • “Fake news is a fact of life in the age of social media. It’s the demand for it, not the supply, that’s the problem. It’s the people seeking and/or finding/receiving information that confirms their own point of view. And it was always that way. What’s different now is it’s being amplified, and then weaponized.
  • “The cures for fake news may be worse than the disease…e.g. government oversight.  The last people I want deciding what’s ‘true’ is the government.” 

On Trust:
  • “The crisis of trust isn’t just in the news, it’s a crisis in knowledge. It’s an epistemic crisis. There’s a boiling resentment of the liberal, educated elite. This led to the rise of populism seen in the U.S….the politics of know-nothing-ism.”
  • “The contempt for media morphed into contempt for knowledge and expertise.”
  • “The internet played an important role in the growing partisanship/lack of consensus between the postmodernism of the radical left and the cynicism of the right.”
  • “There was never such a thing as a well-informed public.  Only some ever chose to be.”

On whether or not news is a public good:
  • “I found the Shattered Mirror report unnecessarily menacing.  I think you can now charge people for what they watch, listen to, and read, vs. the bundled model that aimed for the mushy middle. And not everybody is going to be able to make it in the pay model world, but government subsidies are not the answer.”
  • “I’m against government/public funding of news because it’s not 3 or 4 outlets now, but 3 or 4 thousand. Should the government be deciding who is and isn’t a journalist?”

On the fact that some people are doing journalists’ jobs for free, out of passion for subject matter

  • “We should have to justify our paycheques. If you’re going to be the New York Times writer on a topic then you’d better be damn good.”