Authors of Our Own Demise
The headlines continue to report more doom and gloom for the media business. Newspapers in particular suffered tremendous losses this past week with the shutdown of Denver’s 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer joined a growing list of publications making a mad dash for bankruptcy protection.
Meanwhile, it appears that the broadcast business is also on life support. MediaPost’s Diane Mermigas reports that Barclays Capital and J.P. Morgan nearly doubled their forecast decline in overall TV station local and national spot revenues to a negative –15.5% for 2009, warning it could go lower. Other analysts predict that profits at CBS will decline 65% to 70% as revenues fall 35% to 40% this year.
No matter how you spin it the media business is at a critical point its own historical narrative – and is suffering the added insult of having to write its own obituary. But perhaps not…
Of course news organizations have a moral obligation to report the facts to the public. However, I would assert that they also have an obligation to themselves — to uncover numerous other stories of success that are occurring throughout the media business.
We all know that headlines have the ability to drive a story, just as well as they report it. But sharp editorial staffs do more than just report grim facts. They compel their reporters to dig deeper — to provide balance and context. Otherwise, they run the risk leaving the public in a state of perpetual hopelessness. The psychological impact of nonstop of barrage bad news bears a heavy toll. Readers, advertisers and even news professionals can become resigned and start to question why they even bother.
What makes this all the more challenging is understanding that while news organizations are earnest in their efforts to provide well-rounded coverage of others, they are not so comfortable seeking balance when covering their own industry. Yes, there are legitimate fears about being perceived as self-serving or breaching the public’s trust. But editors must begin to challenge these fears or risk no longer having a platform to explore them.
Newspapers and television, as we’ve known them, may be struggling to survive, but good journalism and popular entertainment will always have a healthy-sized audience. Jeff Jarvis, the noted columnist and media arts professor, continues to chronicle stories of bold new journalism initiatives like ProPublica and Daylife, which are aggressively reinventing the news business.
Those of us who have spent much of our time in traditional media bear much of the blame for this current crisis. We’ve been late to arrive at the scene of our own story – and hardheaded about acknowledging the facts.
There is much to learn from similar situations throughout business history. I recall learning in grade school about how the railroad barons lost their massive fortunes. They were well-positioned to invest in the then fledgling airline industry but chose to ignore signs of its imminent growth. Their grandest mistake was losing sight of the fact that they weren’t in the railroad business; they were really in the transportation business. Henry Ford lost dominance of the auto industry to GM by refusing to offer consumers more than just the standard black Model T.
There have been just as many stories of triumphant comebacks. Having all but missed the PC revolution of the 1990’s, IBM reportedly had just 100 days of remaining cash reserves before Lou Gerstner turned them around. Apple was written off around the same time, until Steve Jobs regained the reigns and led an upward spiral of growth and innovation that still makes his rivals dizzy.
It’s not too late for the media business, if we are willing to meet these mighty challenges with bold and immediate action. With the advent of more mobile devices like Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle, newspapers are waking up to the fact that future fortunes will be found online. They’ll recover sooner by being willing to embrace and become fluent in video. People want to see and experience the world in full-motion and if it is presented in compelling ways readers and advertisers will be willing to pay for it.