OPINION

Traditional Journalists Look Warily Toward 2009

I’m writing this on Tuesday evening Pacific Time, Dec. 30, 2008. It will be published early Friday morning, Jan. 2. So right now I can’t tell you if I was able to keep my first New Year’s resolution: to use the extra “leap second” we all got just before midnight New Year’s Eve in a wise, productive and clever fashion.

The additional tick of the clock came courtesy of the earth slowly putting the brakes on its rotation. Blame the UK’s Royal Observatory, proprietors of Greenwich Mean Time, for stretching out the Economic Year of Living Dangerously; it had to make the adjustment to make GMT A-OK. Never mind the advent of atomic clocks and their down-to-the-nanosecond accuracy. Thanks to the Queen’s timekeepers’ desire to maintain precision in their quaint, low-tech way — sorry for the cultural stereotyping, but I’m picturing Professor Dumbledore winding a really big pocket watch — we got one more second to contemplate the wreckage of 2008.

Or … what if, just maybe, we nuked the negativity and approached this as an opportunity. How many times have we wished for more time to deal with some issue, trivial and/or serious? Just a little more time to rethink a strategy, devise a solution, come up with a call on fourth-and-long that gets our team into the playoffs?

Time Trickery

Okay, so contemplating one more second being added to your life may not be up there with the temporal trickery currently on display in cineplexes in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Nevertheless…

I wanted to use the extra time to help traditional news media come up with a way to deal with declining revenues and technological advances that threaten its business model. I wanted to take that second and apply it to the thought-processes already underway in corner offices all around the country to take that technology — the Internet, social media, streaming video, citizen journalism, whatever — and use it to not only help fill the revenue gap left by the decline of traditional advertising but also advance the cause of 21st-century storytelling.

That was the goal. For all I know, I used the extra second to update my status on Facebook.

Dire Media Predictions for 2009

I am aware that it will take more than an additional second courtesy of Mother Earth to rein in the troubles in the media industry. I also know that better, more experienced minds than mine are already wrestling with this problem. But I happen to be working as an online and television journalist, and I’d like to keep working, so I want to be part of the solution. I’m growing a little weary of checking out Web sites that focus on the media, only to find another former colleague’s name listed among the layoffs.

Unfortunately, the severance checks will probably keep coming in 2009. Two recent postings on MediaPost paint a very bleak picture for local and national outlets in all media. Ad revenue is expected to drop even more than current estimates, some media groups may declare bankruptcy and shut down some of their newspapers or TV stations — or sell them at bargain prices. Since the media love to talk about themselves, imagine the coverage when a major city finds its only daily newspaper closing its doors for good.

One broadcast network may go away, one columnist opines, as it morphs into a cable network with its accompanying subscriber fees. If Jay Leno moving to prime-time can generate front-page copy and first-segment TV stories on cable, just picture the obituaries if and when this happens.

The predictions get a little rosier when it comes to digital technologies. Online advertising will continue to benefit from company spending shifts, more media companies will experiment with digital video, getting readers/viewers to interact with the product will become more of a priority — along with dreaming up ways to monetize it all. No one is guessing that digital advertising will make up for all the money lost as car dealers, banks and retailers cut back on TV commercial spending, but every little bit will help.

The Debate Over 2009

When the editors of Lost Remote, a site dedicated to “local media and the battle for the Web,” linked to that MediaPost column, a spirited discussion ensued. Some agree that 2009 will be a transformative year and that some players will be left by the wayside. But one or two argue that the Internet’s role as savior/change agent is overblown.

I’m no cheerleader for the Internet, but economics and demographics don’t lie. This is where more of the news audience is living now, even the traditionally TV-loving older demographic, as shown in recent Pew Internet and American Life studies. True, older Americans still don’t Web-surf at the same rates that younger demographics do, but their overall numbers are higher than a few years ago thanks to broadband penetration.

I wouldn’t waste an extra second worrying about Web-surfing percentages. I’d just get busy on that Web strategy for my media company.

The Outlook for Journalists

If more print and TV journalists are let go by media companies, then that’s a bigger talent pool for online opportunities. They won’t pay what the journalists are used to, but it’s a way to keep reporting. So here’s to the rise of new aggregation Web sites in 2009 that need experienced editors and writers to help news consumers sift through the digital muck to find nuggets of real news.

You can also expect a few of those laid-off journalists to start their own blogs, or join up with community journalism Web sites, especially if they received a good payout from their previous job. They’ll dip their feet into the digital pool as they try to figure out if they still want to tell stories in this manner.

More local stations will probably continue their experiments with mandatory moves to one-person-band journalism. They’ll train their reporters to shoot/edit their own video and require more online contributions. It’s already being tried in some major markets and the reviews — and quality — have been mixed, but many will consider it better than a severance package. CNN wants to use the “all-platform-journalist” approach as it tries to open one-person bureaus in several U.S. cities.

I would like to think that more local TV stations will take a more voluntary, positive approach with their Web strategies. I’m guessing that some will use their Web sites as journalism laboratories, stirring up interesting concoctions that sales departments can shop to advertisers. Freewheeling discussions, longer interviews, exclusive content, more news-on-demand — let’s raise a glass of your favorite bubbly to hopes we’ll see your favorite TV station attempt to draw outside the lines.

I’m also hoping that more news outlets will play in the social media realm without resorting to rudderless uses of Twitter or Facebook pages. Web 2.0 tools offer the best news value when they offer compelling content or — brace yourself — actual news you can use, not just rants on politics or the outrage story du jour. There are more smartphones out there now with GPS navigation; local stations should tap into that for citizen text-messaged traffic reports, and should get advertisers/retailers to e-mail back coupons to users for participating.

I’m feeling better about 2009 already. The year beckons with a fresh attitude and the kind of temporary optimism that only a new calendar can provide. New ideas would also help, and they need to be implemented right away.

The media don’t have a second to lose.

1 Comment

  • I think that is half the problem to begin with. I know that as a cusping senior citizen that I turned away from TV news and newspapers because of the relentless advertising and the lack of real news. The media seems to be more about telling we what to think and what to believe then it is in revealing the true facts. I turned to the internet to find out for myself what is really going on in the world. I must admit that it is becoming increasing more difficult to do that since a large number or media outlets have made the shift to the internet, so I do have to rely on Twitter or Facebook or god forbid YouTube to find out what is really going on. I have to separate a lot of chaff from the wheat but at least I can usually find myself in the vicinity of the truth. I do not trust the corporate media anymore. They control the airwaves, they control the reporters and I feel they want to control me. I AM not willing to lie down just yet.

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