Publishing, Journalism, Music and New Digital Media

A postscript.

After writing this I discovered a couple of blog posts with different perspectives. Blogger Kelby Carr writes that newspapers are heading in the wrong direction by cutting content and paring down long form journalism.

Erin Kotecki Vest wrote about the journalistic results of the adaptation to brevity, short attention span and unwavering objectivity.

As a result of the proliferation of digital media, the restructuring of nearly every industry that deals with information–publishing, radio, television, journalism, advertising–is breath-taking.

Add to this the effects of digital distribution in the music industry and the arrival of new venues for information and entertainment that have never been a factor in the competition for mind space and it becomes clear just how fundamental is this change.

This isn’t a new thought, of course, but it’s a recurring theme in recent days. What brought it to mind was the move to the web by the Christian Science Monitor and staff reductions and the cancellation of two programs recently by NPR. These reductions also made it clear that the changes we’re living through affect non-profit as well as for-profit ventures. And the pressures are not only economic. They may include the need to reach a more diverse demographic, respond to globalization, find a more direct and efficient way to interact with an audience, provide a multimedia experience and offer new products.

The old models of producing and distributing information, and generating revenue if you’re in a for-profit corporation, are breaking down and new models are yet to be developed. (Did anyone really anticipate ring tones at the start of the cellphone revolution?)

Our non-profit organization recently announced a reduction of seven positions. We did everything within our capacity to assist these colleagues and most have already found new employment. That doesn’t mean the change is less wrenching or worrisome, nor that the issues we face are lessened. The problems aren’t resolved by cutting back. We still need to add skills in digital media.

It’s paradoxical that the strengths of the old models don’t count for much. For example, NPR is enjoying near-record audiences.  The Pew Center for People and the Press reports as newspaper readership declines, online readership is increasing. More revenue streams are available in the music industry but there’s still no clear pathway to viable business plans for content creators.

Digital production is not necessarily less expensive than print. In fact, it can be more expensive, and digital products are not necessarily more profitable.

Demand for information in multiple formats adds to the challenge. Audiences are not only fragmenting, media usage is expanding across a wider spectrum of media as costs rise and income stabilizes or decreases. If reach and audience size don’t matter as they once did, then clearly, the metrics of the old operating models don’t apply right now and perhaps they will never work the same again.

When the Detroit Free Press went to three-day home delivery the managing editor was emphatic that seven-day home delivery would not be restored. The move is not a temporary adaptation, it’s permanent.

Four days later the Free Press announced reductions and redeployment of staff, a plan for digital media distribution and more multimedia content. It’s a microcosm of the publishing industry today.

Each of these industries faces unique problems but, in general, as demand grows for information across various media, new staff skills are required to create and maintain expanded infrastructure, producers are needed to package and manage information, different information is called for as content weaves through and drives users to various media, and new products must be developed and marketed.

The trends identified in the State of the Media 2008 report by the Project on Excellence in Journalism point toward a profound shift in the expectations of readers, how they use information and the fluid nature of news as an ongoing narrative, not a fixed product.

The report also reinforces a trend identified in many other places, namely, the shift from delivering a product to delivering service and empowering the user. A shift marketers identified a few years ago in other arenas has now come to journalism.

Audiences today cross borders and interact in ways not possible before. The dialogue that is the strength of the Internet is now global. Language, once a barrier, is likely to become less so as new transliteration tools are developed.

A key issue for information providers who desire to reach global audiences is how to communicate with them in the language they prefer and that is, therefore, most likely to communicate effectively and with relevance, and to invite them into a two-way conversation.

Adapting to and responding to this landscape is the challenge. And despite the obvious need to manage resources responsibly, the challenge is not resolved by reducing and paring down alone. Nor will increased funding assure success. Paring back less useful skills and shepherding resources may make a difference, but at its core the challenge is bigger than money.

The efforts by the music industry to halt illegal downloading and protect revenue through lawsuits has moderated such behavior at the cost of alienating music fans. Music sales and concert revenues continue to slip. It’s common to read references to this effort in many places as an example of how not to deal with digital piracy with your customer base.

Money is an important part of the problem, but the greater challenge is about creativity, innovation and risk. Adapting and surviving requires a willingness to innovate, the courage to risk and the capacity to fail and get back up and try again. It’s essential to maintain a relationship with end users, listening to what they want, and how they want it delivered. And even then the answers may be confusing or unclear. It’s an ever-changing, fast-moving landscape.

A good supply of antacid helps.

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