Traditional Media: Compete Or Die

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Newspapers have been the bastion of capitalism, private enterprise and economic freedom.

Government intervention in the economy should be minimized so that the private sector can flourish, they have said repeatedly.

But Bob Cox, the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, a former colleague and nice guy, thinks news organizations should have charitable status and suggests other ways that media can be helped by government intervention.

So here’s the problem. Hypocrisy.

When the balance sheet looks good, media managers are rugged individualists. When it goes bad, those same people plead for government help.

Those senior editors and publishers, rugged individuals to be sure, have opined that the free marketplace rules. Good. Except when their own companies can’t compete.

So here is the answer, if it’s not too late already … compete.

You can’t compete if you are ruining your product by cutting good staff. It just doesn’t work. All it does it lengthen the runway for the plane to eventually crash. That’s not a winning strategy.

If you were a journalist attending the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, you perceived that movie as something much different from the usual theatergoer. The newsrooms that produced that great journalism illustrated in the movie no longer exist. They’re empty with but skeleton staffs publishing newspapers that read like the telephone book. How many stories from boring meetings, the cop shop and the court docket can readers bear?

So innovate.

Innovation is not dumping the newspaper on the Internet and asking people to buy it.

Innovation is something completely new that takes advantage of Internet interaction with readers.

Your agent had a managing editor at the Winnipeg Free Press, Murray Burt, who was a very wise man. Problem was, as a young know-it-all (now I’m an older know-it-all), you didn’t grasp his wisdom until later in life.

As a young man, your agent was full of ideas … some good, some bad. Burt had a philosophy that he imparted on his energetic and too-young senior manager. If an idea works, do it. If it doesn’t, stop it. That was the mantra I heard time after time when I brought in a new idea.

It was a great philosophy. It allowed you to experiment without destroying the product.

Your agent brought this philosophy to The Bulldog. Some ideas worked … extensive commenting, aggregated news topics  and The Bulldog Forum. Others didn’t. The Digital Dog podcast was tried in numerous incarnations but it just didn’t generate interest. Readers didn’t like it and for the amount of labour put into it, it wasn’t worth the bother. Bye bye.

So the media finds its products aren’t successful in broadcast, print and the Internet. What do they do? Create the same product with less depth.

Instead, the traditional media should be competing and reinventing themselves. Finding something new that is interactive and fun. Think Facebook rather than dumping info onto the web. Don’t create worse newspapers and TV broadcasts. That’s a formula for disaster. And disaster is what traditional media is getting.

Now they are begging for government help. It’s pathetic. These rugged individualists turn out to be just another Bombardier.

Newspapers won’t survive this sea change in Internet news consumption, if news at all. Their best people have been laid off or bought out. Stodgy management is bankrupt of new ideas beyond giving media outlets charitable status. Is that the depth to which these rugged individualists have plummeted?

The Bulldog is not the last word in the information problem … in fact much closer to the first.

But it is interactive. People feel they have a role to play in it. Thus, the popularity of civilized comments and The Bulldog Forum in moderated give and take. Readers have sweat equity in it. And you can’t have a relationship without sweat equity on both sides.

That relationship has spawned 124,000 page views a week. The Bulldog has lasted five years when it started with zero readers. But it took advantage of the interactive nature of the Internet. And that is the key to making the Internet work for you. Dumping the newspaper on the web just doesn’t work. But then traditional media knows that already and learned the lesson the hard way.

Unfortunately, traditional media have their readership tired and bored.

While interactivity has been important in The Bulldog’s growth, taking advantage of the efficiency of the Internet has created a unique production capabilities.

In other words, you can produce three websites and The Bulldog Forum with minimum staff. And The Bulldog is economically viable. Studied use of aggregation, automatic plugins and automated production mean that the human element is the creative side while the dog work is done by fancy machines. Some computer programs being used by The Bulldog, but not created by The Bulldog, are simply amazing. They paginate and publish at the push of a button.

Now the traditional media is asking government to find ways of subsidizing them. To keep them afloat.

That will just prolong an agonizing death. It’s too bad but true. Having spent a lifetime in newspapers with all the good and the bad that such a life has entailed, watching my home for more than three decades die is heart-wrenching. It makes me feel old and rather less than useful. The Bulldog makes me feel young and innovative.

So a word to Justin Trudeau and company. Don’t subsidize traditional media. You’re throwing good money after bad.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs couldn’t save newspapers. And the people running traditional media these days are not Gates and Jobs. Furthermore, subsidies will retard the growth of new media which are scratching for revenue.

New media don’t want subsidies. They want a level playing field so they can thrive.

And thrive, one way or the other, is what new media will do over time.

Government should not hinder this process.

When traditional media die, and they will, we will face an information void and a period of dislocation. But there are enough creative people out there who will fill that void in forms that will astound us.

The best of journalism will be reinvented and made so much better.

And that prediction is not coming from a rugged individualist. No, it emanates from a person who tries new things and if they work, they stay and if they don’t, they’re tossed out.

Thanks Murray.

 


Video above: Welcome to the modern world of newspapers from The Wire. This clip captures the current state of newspapers very realistically. Except that now, not as many people are left in newsrooms to form such an audience.


 

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6 thoughts on “Traditional Media: Compete Or Die

  1. A frank analysis of the future of printed news. I look forward to the next generation which may include Ottawa’s Bulldog

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  2. I lost all hope for our hometown papers when two things happened: One, Postmedia crawled into bed with MOGO, a payday loan company, offering it millions in free advertising in exchange for a piece of its revenue; Two, the laughable claims made when the Sun purchase happened that oh, yes, there will be separate newsrooms. Anyone who swallowed that one also owns extensive swampland in Florida.

    The industry has systemic issues, for sure. But the venal and incompetent managers of Postmedia put that company in a category of one. And we all suffer for their failures.

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  3. I stopped subscribing to the Ottawa Citizen a few years back. The underlying reason was the death by a thousand cuts to local coverage, which is what I had mainly wanted from the paper. National and international news are pretty easy to get online, both for free and by subscription (I have online subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post). But in-depth local coverage requires resources on the ground here, and the Citizen gradually got rid of most of their local reporters. It’s pretty much down to the excellent work of Reevely, and Willing (inherited when the Sun newsroom was folded in). I just follow them online.

    What is now missing is investigative reporting at the local level in Ottawa. Unless something shows up in a report released by the city, it likely won’t be discovered by the press. When was the last time a story broke here about local government that wasn’t based on the agenda for a City Council or committee meeting, a report released by the city, or some advocacy group having done the legwork? There are still a few, but they are far between.

    Maybe all City Councillors and all city staff are squeaky clean. But is anyone really actively probing the goings on at City Hall? For example, do we all really believe there are no Councillors or staff whose ties to developers aren’t just a tad too close?

    The Bulldog does a fine job with local news and commentary. But I don’t think it’s in the business of investigative reporting, is it? I don’t think we have much of that in Ottawa any more, which should worry us.

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    1. Jay:

      The Bulldog breaks the occasional story but the traditional media ignore the story for whatever reason you choose to believe.

      When I was at The Citizen we broke stories every day because we had the time and resources to that. And also because I worked like a dog.

      Still work like a dog but The Bulldog is a lot of things and it doesn’t allow much time for investigation. Sorry.

      But what is also missing from local coverage is comment. Beyond The Bulldog, who still comments?

      cheers

      kgray

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