Traditional media faces serious issues in the online world that they cannot resolve by being online. Can online bookselling behemoth Amazon's formula save the Washington Post? We may get a chance to find out.
In a recent piece here at MercatorNet, journalism professor Wayne Houston outlined reasons for believing that the recent Washington Post sale points to a quality future for newspapers:
“…it appears the smart money has waited until the corporations and families have mismanaged the newspapers to fire-sale prices, digital ad revenue has increased substantially and customers have started to pay subscriptions for content on the web.”
Indeed, it may. But here are some of the issues that the Post and other recently purchased newspapers need to address.
The Post was sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of internet book retailing behemoth Amazon. Some have described the fact that the papers sold for a fraction of their value a decade ago a fire sale. But the internet “fire-sales” the value of traditional news organizations just by the very way it works. It is the same principle by which Bezos’s Amazon crushed many local bookstores.
Newspapers aren’t bookstores, it is true. But traditional media face serious issues in the online world that they cannot resolve simply by going/being online.
One issue is immediacy. In a crisis, a hurricane, for example, a local blogger can be “on the scene” in a way that a major news medium cannot. In the past, he would have to phone a radio station or newspaper. Now he can just put up a blog with pix of events street by street. Is he better than professional coverage? Well, if you want someone who knows the neighbourhood well and is there full-time during the crisis, maybe. At any rate, he, and many like him, draw countless eyeballs away from professional media.
Another issue is proximity. That is, proximity to a source of news. Recently, major news outlets in Toronto (Canada’s biggest city) have been routinely grabbing stories broken by a blogger (often without crediting the source), for example:
– Islamic prayer rituals during school hours at a public school (contrary to usual policy on religion at school). Story broken by blogger on June 29, 2011, only later picked up by major media (for example, September 18, 2011).
– Anti-Semitism taught in weekend classes at Toronto’s public schools. Story broken by blogger on May 2, 2012, picked up a major medium, May 17, 2012.
– The Toronto School Board was linking to a Web site advising children to put vegetables into their genitals as a form of sexual stimulation. Story broken by blogger September 25, 2012, picked up by a major medium September 29, 2012.
Obviously, the blogger has a reliable tipster for these education stories. Toronto is hardly unique. Readers who follow a given issue start relying on the blogs. Readers indifferent to that issue are content to read stories in the major medium. But everyone cares about something and over a number of years of many such issues, eyeballs and advertising dollars turn away from major media.
Then there is a third issue, the cost of courage. The group of stories cited above, that the public clearly wanted (and should have wanted) to know, has a common factor: airing them risked offending powerful religious or sexuality lobbies. A corporation with many stakeholders pauses… That’s understandable, but — advantage blogger! And too often these days, just when the blogger is breaking a scandal, major media sound as if their job is to relay the propaganda of present or aspiring governments.
Only Jeff Bezos knows what he will do at this point. But none of these problems will be resolved by more up-to-date technology. Today, anybody with a story and a sense of news can get enough technology free at Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere to thrive and maybe go viral.
One option for turning the Post’s fortunes around would be to hire the bloggers who are currently sapping major media strength, thus reacquiring the eyeballs of lost readers. But the medium must then tolerate a variety of opinion now viewed with caution and disdain.
It all reminds me of a problem some of us have had with local bookstores, which have sometimes made idiosyncratic decisions about what they would stock and where they would shelve it. For example, a book about problems with current evolution theory might get shelved with “religion” even if the author did not discuss religion or doubt that evolution has occurred. Many readers turned to Amazon, which tends to market books by their subject rather than perceptions about the author.
Oh wait. Amazon? Jeff Bezos’s company?
If that’s what he is thinking, he isn’t saying … but then, he wouldn’t, would he?
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.