Media: Okay, so is it time to panic yet?

by Mathew on October 31, 2008 · 16 comments

I’ve been doing my best to remain calm, but I have to confess that it isn’t working as well as it usually does. I’m speaking, of course, about the tsunami that is currently wreaking havoc on the traditional media business, an industry in which I happen to have spent virtually my entire working life. The earthquake that created this particular tsunami occurred ages ago, and those who were paying attention have long since headed inland to safety, but the shock waves are now starting to hit with real force, accelerated by the economic uncertainty all around us.

Bad news has been trickling in for months, or even years — newspapers cutting back staff, closing editions, companies on the ropes financially. But it’s been a thousand small cuts, mostly at smaller publications, and so it hasn’t really had as much impact as it might otherwise. It seems to be accelerating though, and now it’s not just small papers or magazines but ones that everybody has heard of. It hit home recently while reading through a summary of industry news that I get daily from the folks at I Want Media. Here’s a sampling of recent headlines:

– “Newark Star-Ledger cuts 40% of staff”
– “TimeWarner to cut 600 jobs in magazines”
– “Gannett to cut 3,000 newspaper jobs”
– “Orange County Register to cut 110 jobs”
– “LA Times cuts 10 per cent of staff”
– “Thomson Reuters eyes massive layoffs”
– “Washington Post profit falls 86 per cent”
– “New York Times debt cut to junk”

In Canada, there have been layoffs at the Toronto Star, and the National Post just announced that it will no longer publish a weekday edition in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Several magazines have also stopped publishing, including Masthead magazine, which covers the magazine industry. Compared to what’s been going on in the U.S., Canada seems to have remained relatively unscathed, and as far as I can tell the atmosphere at the Globe (where I work) is cautiously optimistic. But the unrelenting cascade of bad news does tend to make the palms a little sweaty regardless.

For what it’s worth, I think journalism itself — broadly defined — has never been stronger. To see things like the Huffington Post and Politico.com spring up from virtually nothing and become media powerhouses in their own right is a tremendous thing, and I have no doubt that the Christian Science Monitor could do the same without much trouble, now that has cut itself free from newsprint and publishing and trucks and all of that. But it’s still difficult to watch the kind of wrenching change we’re seeing this entire industry go through. Evolution can often be ugly.

Update:

My friend and former colleague Richard Siklos (we were both summer interns at the London Free Press about 20 years ago) seems somewhat more sanguine about the fate of the newspaper business. And don’t get me wrong — I think the newspaper business is going to be around for a while; I just think it’s going to employ fewer people, and while it may involve roughly the same amount of news, it’s going to involve a lot less paper. On a related front, Pat Thornton of Journalism Iconoclast did an interview with John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, about the paper’s decision to go Web-only and what that means.

  • http://www.jeffreymclarty.com/jm McLarty

    I could lie and say “It's going to be okay”…but it probably isn't ( ~3 yrs out )…but I'm not lieing when I say “It's going to be okay FOR YOU”. You're smart, you'll land on your feet, no matter what happens.

    I would suggest you move before it's too late. Don't go down with the ship, or wait it out. Like, start looking for a new job – book author? entrepreneur? world traveller? photographer? got any other passions?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks Jeff.

  • http://rewinder.ca Greg

    Just yesterday I was reading about old media's decline at nytimes.com and it made me think two things. One the one hand, I guess I'm lucky to be in Canada because, as you've noted, we've managed to escape the decline (until now at least). But on the other hand, assuming one day I leave my job, or am forced out of my job, where do I go? If old media is falling apart and layoffs are happening all over the place, what's next for people like me — people in media?

    Despite the cynicism and bleak outlook a real opportunity for Canadian media institutions exists: there's no clear online winner as far as journalism within this country goes and someone needs to take top spot.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree, Greg. I guess we need to create one :-)

  • http://www.dveit.com desarae

    I love all your references and you make a ton of valid points about the industry, however I think your best bet is in integration. Broadening your horizons and embracing the innovative industry changes towards online medias. By integrating technology into journalism's high standards and the ability to give people content in new ways — well its phenomenal and exciting. I love blogs for example, but unlike journalism many bloggers do not hold themselves to the high standards of integrity and research intensive reporting necessary to keep the readers trust. Anyway, just my two cents, but love the post.

    Desarae
    http://www.dveit.com

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Desarae.

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  • http://www.deathoftime.com Doug Poretz

    I bring the perspective of someone who has spent 40 years or so on that side of the communications business that works with/for those who want to communicate messages to targeted audiences through ad and p.r. and interactive campaigns, etc.. Those are the guys that generate most of the revenue for most of those who provide the distribution channel for those messages (the media). Currently, I am co-founder and partner at a successful communications firm in DC. Anyhow ….

    I think there is about to be a really fundamental change in media. I wrote about it recently at my blog, http://www.deathoftime.com under the title “The Message Is The Medium; Get Ready For A New Era Of Communications Campaigns.” My basic premise is that the dynamic global political and economic environment will result in a mission-critical level need on the part of special interest groups of all sizes and ilks to defend their current positions and/or promote new changes that will benefit them. This will translate into a fight for who controls messages and thereby frames the debates that may start as soon as in a lame duck session of congress. This will create a surge in advertising of “support this”-type messages. At the same time, the “buy this” messages that have dominated and shaped our culture will be moved to much more efficient environments and aimed in a more targeted way than ever before.

    Also at the same time, my side of the industry will be changed. That is, communications firms have been identified by virtue of the distribution channel. For example, “advertising” and advertising agencies communicate messages by buying media; PR firms communicate by “earning” coverage in news media; sports marketing firms focus on communicating a message through an event; and so on. But in an era when you can get to your targets through numerous channels, it is crazy and counter-productive to structure the industry on the basis of the channel.

    What will these trends result in? I believe we will see a more fundamental change to the communications industry with deeper impact at a faster speed than is currently predicted, even among those who think the situation is dire for communications companies. But out of this, new names and new models will emerge — none of the existing leaders look to me as prospects for creating the new models.

  • http://blog.agoracom.com Agoracom – George

    Mathew, I smell a serious opportunity. I saw the void in the small-cap world and my efforts have paid huge dividends. We need a Canadian version of Huffington and I don't think it is going to come from any of the major media brands.

    Given internet usage in Canada http://tinyurl.com/63nny5 a US type experience is nay and current economic conditions will only hasten it.

    We should chat.

    GT

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think you're probably right, George. Happy to chat any time.

  • http://blog.agoracom.com Agoracom – George

    Mathew, I smell a serious opportunity. I saw the void in the small-cap world and my efforts have paid huge dividends. We need a Canadian version of Huffington and I don't think it is going to come from any of the major media brands.

    Given internet usage in Canada http://tinyurl.com/63nny5 a US type experience is nay and current economic conditions will only hasten it.

    We should chat.

    GT

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think you're probably right, George. Happy to chat any time.

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