What a Difference 27 Years Make

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newspaper-history-1314775-231x173We’ve seen pressure on all traditional media – print and television – for some time now. However, we might want to look at the recent history of radio as a harbinger for what to expect in these other media markets. I began working in the radio industry as an AM disc jockey in the late 1970s, just as, given its superior audio quality, FM was becoming the “go to” frequency band for music fans. Radio personalities had to find a way to attract and keep listeners. While still playing music, we began relying more on talk – mostly of the (innocent) humorous kind. It wasn’t much of a leap from there to Howard Stern and then to Rush Limbaugh.

Print media has been suffering a slow and agonizing death since before we originally started The Sentinel in 1989. I remember, at the time, telling one of my college classmates – whose family owns a well-known west coast newspaper publishing company – that I was starting a newspaper. He told me I was crazy. He had seen, first-hand, the erosion of the traditional newspaper business model. I told him, while the decline in the newspaper business was real, it was most acute for metropolitan papers. The Sentinel was to be (and remains) a weekly suburban community newspaper. It wasn’t until the advent of social media, coupled with the economic disaster of 2008/2009, that even the weekly print market began to atrophy.

The recession of 2008/2009 represented the straw that broke the camel’s back for print media. First US News & World Report, then Newsweek, ceased print publication. In addition, we saw major bankruptcies, consolidations, and out-right closing of both metropolitan dailies and suburban weeklies. We don’t have to go much further than our neighboring towns to see both the sale and consolidation of the Brighton-Pittsford Post (and affiliated weeklies) into the Canandaigua Messenger, followed by the purchase of those publications by the national company Gatehouse Media, which eventually sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. For that matter, look at what’s happened to the Democrat & Chronicle. The paper is smaller, there’s less locally created news, and, most important, advertising has still not recovered to its pre-2008/2009 peak.

This is before we even talk about what has become the bane to all news media – the explosion of internet-based instant news. Unfortunately for the legacy media, they’ve been late to the game and many still cling to the archaic “pay-wall” strategy. Much of today’s news is “crowd-sourced” – this means you’ll find out about news first from non-journalist sources on such social media platforms as Twitter and Facebook. Sure, this “news” is less reliable than that provided by professional journalists, but the audience is more forgiving today than it was when journalism school textbooks were originally written. Therefore, the competition for readers, viewers, and – this is a somewhat new term – users is very real. Media properties that have fought the urge to digitize “to maintain journalistic integrity” quickly found themselves becoming the buggy whips of the publishing business.

We are in the midst of a great convulsion of the media industry. Where the industry finally evolves will be determined by those under 30 years old. I sincerely doubt my grandchildren with even know what “the evening news” is. Fewer and fewer people rely on the traditional network news programs for news. One of my clients worked for a network news division. That client laments how the content provided on the evening news today feels more like “Entertainment Tonight” than real, hard news. Ironically, more people believed they received actual news from Comedy Central’s spoof news broadcast The Daily Show than you might imagine.

If there’s little difference between television news broadcasts and entertainment, where does that leave old-fashioned entertainment?

I can’t answer that. But I can say people will always remain curious about what’s happening around them. That curiosity may no longer be satisfied by the traditional mainstream media, but it will be satisfied.

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