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October 30, 2014

For the Economist: Preserving the Best of Media Culture

The Economist is running a major series on the global news industry, well-worth checking into, excerpts available for non-subscribers. As part of that effort, I’ve been asked to contribute, among a half-dozen others (among them, Dan Gillmor, David Levy, Ying Chan, Larry Kilman), weekly thoughts. For week 3: The impact of social media on news, with the question, “TV and Radio news is performing well. Does it matter if the power of the press is diminished?”

Here’s my take, below, and a link to others’ takes:

MEDIA isn’t what it used to be. We used to be able to think of TV news, radio news, and newspaper news distinctly. Digital media is rapidly blurring these long-established boundaries. We need to think about video, audio and text (not TV, radio and newsprint) because it is clear that the journalism-producing companies of 2015 must be proficient in producing all of them. That is a work in progress, as newspaper companies climb the curve of creating video and TV company personnel struggle with the daily art of writing for the page, not for broadcast.

More immediately, the diminishment of the print press is a great cause for concern. Why? It is not the words—the text, to which we can not be married—it is the thinking; the analysis; the time; the resources; the usually strong tradition of resisting advertiser pressure on what we write, and what we do not write. It is the willingness to take on investigations that take time and aren’t sexy. The press has a different, long-established culture to commercial television and radio, even as the business of TV and radio are changing quickly in the digital age. Changing technologies, business models and devices are one thing, harder-to-define culture is quite another, and the best of the press culture, updated for the digital age, must be maintained.

In any city, the number of print journalists far outnumbers broadcasters, even though in America the daily reach of TV news is fairly close to that of newspapers. Too often broadcasters follow up on (and feed off) work begun by print journalists. (At worst, it is “rip and read”, driven by ratings, with far less of a balance of public service and profit.) Without that daily work in print, the whole ecosystem of news spins out of balance, as it has already begun to do.

Finally, while print-based operations are flagging, commercial TV and radio broadcasters can only argue that they are doing better by comparison. Their businesses are more flat than growing, threatened also by changes in audience and advertising behaviour. They have no guaranteed future either. Diminishment of the old is the order of the day; more reason to get on with building the new, the right way.

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