Facing up to Changes in the Media

The changes in media are leading to new
demands, new distribution channels and greater pressures on
journalists.

Yesterday in a motel in Baton Rouge by chance I bumped into a journalist I know who was also covering Katrina recovery. We talked briefly about our work and he said in passing that he didn’t know whether to write, take digital photos or shoot with a video camera. His assignment encompasses all three.

In the changing environment of converged media we are expecting journalists to have wider skill sets in order to distribute stories on a variety of media. This is the convergence model so often discussed today. It means producing for print, the web and television. It means still photography, videography, writing and, sometimes, audio. But it doesn’t necessarily mean a two- or three-person crew. Today it often means a one-person band.

And this presents us with a basic paradigm shift that is happening, not unbeknownst to senior executives of communications organizations, but one which is moving apace because the economics and media options are driving us to new ways of doing this work.

Katherine Q. Seelye in the New York Times this morning reports the Washington Post is cutting back 80 newsroom positions while asking the remaining staff to produce for more media. On the face of it, this seems quite a paradox, cutting back while asking staff to produce for more outlets. But I understand it.

Readership is down, expenses are up and revenues are flat. People are turning to a variety of media to get their information. There are only a couple of ways to deal with this fundamental reality–increase revenues and audience, or decrease staff, capital expenses and coverage. By the way, because I work in the non-profit sector don’t assume that we’re immune to the same dynamics that drive for-profit media. There is a difference, to be sure, but we face many of the same fundamental issues–flattened revenues, declining audiences for old-line publications, an outflow to new media and increases in capital, out-of-pocket and personnel costs. We also live in a world of competition. It is a fatal mistake for us to assume: (a) that there is a loyal audience and (b) that the audience will stay with us if they have multiple choices for information. Neither assumption is safe today.

Blogs, online chats, websites, television, radio and podcasts all take time to produce and fewer hands and eyes are available to produce them. As one reporter for the Post says in the Times article, we’re asking staff to do more with less. It’s a genuine concern. Will we reach a point of diminishing return, or see quality diminish because people can’t take the time to produce at a level that sustains higher quality and depth?

Finally, there are also differences in media. Print offers more depth and detail. Visual media rely on a different set of perceptual skills and don’t provide depth but provide experience. Sound is different still. It’s engaging and personal.

What this means for the long-term is unclear. The Post’s cuts still leave the paper with 900 employees, according to the Times article. But change is happening and it’s happening fast, as Post Science writer Rick Weiss says. And he continues, “staying the same isn’t an option.”

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