How the media industry keeps losing its future


If Roger Fidler’s career has any meaning, it’s this: Sometimes you can see the future coming but it tramples you anyway.

Thirty years ago, Fidler was a media executive pushing a reassuring vision for the future of newspapers. The digital revolution would free news from the printing presses, providing people with portable devices that would keep them informed throughout the day. Some stories would be enhanced with video, others with sound and animation. Readers could share articles, driving participation in diverse communities.

All of that has happened, more or less. Everyone is connected all the time and almost everyone seems interested, if not obsessed, with national and world events. But the traditional media that Fidler defended does not receive many benefits. After decades of decline, its collapse appears to be accelerating.

Every day brings bad news. Sometimes these are newly formed digital companies, sometimes venerable publications whose history dates back more than a century.

Cuts were just announced at Law360, The Intercept and the youth-oriented video site NowThis, which laid off half its staff. Tech news site Engadget, which exhaustively tracks tech layoffs, laid off its top editors and other staff members. Condé Nast and Time are laying off employees. The continued existence of Vice Media, once valued at $5.7 billion, and Sports Illustrated, once the most influential sports publication, is uncertain. The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post between them eliminated hundreds of journalists. One in four newspapers that existed in 2005 no longer exists.

The slow decline of newspapers and magazines would be of limited interest except for one thing: traditional media had at its core the exalted and difficult mission of communicating information about the world. From investigative reporting on the government to coverage of local politicians, the news served to make all of the institutions and individuals covered a little more transparent and, arguably, more honest.

Advice columns, movie reviews, recipes, stock market data, weather reports and almost everything else in newspapers moved easily online, except the news itself. Local and regional coverage had difficulty establishing itself as a paid proposition.

Now there are signs that the whole concept of “news” is fading. When asked where they get their local news, nearly as many respondents to a Gallup poll said social media cited newspapers and magazines. A recent attempt to offer people free subscriptions to their local newspapers in Pennsylvania as part of an academic study attracted almost no one.

“Shortly after the printing press emerged in the 15th century, scriptoriums for copying manuscripts in monasteries began to rapidly close,” said Mr. Fidler, now 81 and living in retirement in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I’m not very optimistic about the survival of most newspapers in the United States.”

The decline of the media has been accompanied by the fracturing of American society, which is now as angry and divided as it has been since the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests more than half a century ago. As the mids dropped, the noise level increased.

Maybe it could have been different. Contrary to the myth that all the newspaper magnates of the 1980s and 1990s thought the good times would last forever, quite a few saw trouble lurking in the distance.

Fidler spent 21 years at Knight Ridder, a newspaper chain that had major metropolitan dailies in cities such as Miami and San Jose, California. One of the first projects was Viewtron, an effort to install terminals in people’s homes that would deliver news, shop and chat. . It delivered too little and cost too much. In 1986, Viewtron closed.

What Fidler learned from Viewtron’s failure was that newspaper readers needed something that looked like a newspaper and didn’t put a squeeze on their wallets. He helped develop technology for lightweight tablet computers that would use inexpensive but clear and bright flat screens with relatively long battery life.

Such exhibits did not exist in the early 1990s, but were promised by the end of the decade. The newspaper would be transmitted via high-speed digital telephone networks or direct broadcast satellite transmissions. “I think this will be the saving grace for traditional serious newspapers,” Thomas Winship, longtime editor of the Boston Globe, told the New York Times in a 1992 profile of Fidler.

While at least some editors were convinced, tablets never saved newspapers. One problem was that there was no consensus on a software standard. Tablets didn’t really become viable until Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. But the real problem for the news business was the emergence of a devastating, unforeseen competitor: the Internet.

“I was too focused on the limited,” Fidler admitted.

The Internet would first create an alternative to printed newspapers and magazines, then become a competitor, and finally wipe out many of them. “I didn’t consider all the potential cross-impacts of emerging technologies that would lead to Craigslist, alternative news sites, social media and other products that would greatly decrease newspaper circulation and advertising revenue,” Fidler said.

Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1989 as a tool for collaborating and sharing information. Being amorphous and infinitely flexible, it allowed for slow adapters and fast adapters at the same time, avoiding the kind of restraint of readers that Mr. Fidler believed necessary. Newspapers lost their online classified ads almost immediately. Display ads persisted, but Google and Facebook, and later Amazon, took over that market.

The web, by essentially allowing all voices to be heard at the same volume, encouraged editors to join the party. Newspapers and magazines simply gave away what they had collected in physical form. They were driven by Silicon Valley, which needed quality content to keep people online and using its technology.

“Publishers had the mistaken belief that content is like a commodity and should be available everywhere for free,” Fidler said. It took years to implement paywalls, at which point many publications were fatally weakened.

Despite all the pessimism that the media is stirring up about the media, the situation is contradictory.

Reliable local reporting in many places is scarce or non-existent. But there is also a much wider variety of foreign, domestic and cultural news available online than previous generations were able to publish in print. For all the celebration of the old days, if you were in a city with a mediocre newspaper (and there were many), access to quality journalism was difficult.

“Basically, the world has opened up to us. There is a lot of good journalism out there,” said David Mindich, a journalism professor at Temple University’s Klein School of Media and Communication. “If you had told me 20 years ago, ‘I see a generation listening to long-form audio shows,’ he would have said, ‘Attention spans are getting shorter. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. But it did.”

Most long-form audio shows, even the best ones, aren’t news in the same way that, say, a zoning commission report is. The erosion of the idea of ​​news can be seen even more clearly in the field of magazines. Where the objective was to inform, now it is to entertain.

“Time magazine just selected Taylor Swift as person of the year,” said Samir Husni, a longtime analyst for the magazine. “He never selected Elvis or the Beatles. She was the first cheerleader. “We are becoming more of a marketing issue in journalism than actual journalism because we depend on the customer to pay the price instead of advertising.”

This is how digital has changed journalism, he said: “The question now is to make everyone happy. But that was never the role of journalism: to make people happy.”

Marc Benioff, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who bought Time in 2018 with his wife, Lynne, saw Swift’s selection differently: “The best-selling issue of all time!” (At least in recent years.) A few weeks after Swift’s issue appeared, Time’s union said that 15 percent of the magazine’s unionized editorial staff had been laid off.

That was more of a strategic move than a sign of distress, Benioff said.

“If you want these media businesses to work, you have to change the product mix, which also means you have to change the employee mix,” he texted. The paywall, implemented in 2011, was removed last year. As a brand, Time needs as much exposure as possible.

Two years ago, Benioff told Axios that Time’s revenue would rise 30 percent in 2022 to $200 million. That could have been an aspiration. “Revenue in 2024 should reach $200 million, a new high,” he says now. “We’re even going to make money.”

Other publications are trying to take the profit motive out of journalism.

Nonprofit journalism businesses tend to be small, low-profile, and unevenly distributed across regions. But there are many signs of growth. The number of media outlets serving communities of color (never very well served by traditional publications) has doubled in the past five years, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Readers usually respond too.

“People talk about nonprofit reporting in their communities as if it were a normal part of the news ecosystem, not as if it were an external force,” said Magda Konieczna, author of “Nonprofit Journalism: Making News When the market fails.” In some places the effect is surprising. “Philadelphia is now a news jungle instead of a news desert.”

Ms. Konieczna teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. A few weeks ago, a Canadian news giant, Bell Media, announced it would cut hundreds of jobs and end many of its television newscasts. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the decision was “eroding our own democracy.”

“My neighbors read The New Yorker but don’t know where to find local news, or why they would want to, largely because it doesn’t really exist,” Konieczna said. “This is the dystopian future.”

As it happened, the New Yorker hired AJ Liebling, the greatest newspaper critic of the postwar years. He called himself an optimist despite having seen a downhill march since he became a reporter in 1925.

“The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money,” he wrote. The more he did the latter, he argued, the less he cared about the former.

There was no golden age, but Roger Fidler remains inconsolable. He long outlived Knight Ridder, which was sold to McClatchy, another chain, in 2006. McClatchy filed for bankruptcy in 2020. He spends a couple of hours each day reading the news in the print edition of a community newspaper and the local editions. digital of national newspapers. and regional newspapers. It’s a lot and it’s still not enough.

“Social media and its comments overwhelmed us,” he said. “We are inundated with information because everyone is a journalist. Everyone believes they have the truth. Surely everyone has an opinion. “It’s disheartening to see how it’s gone.”

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