Friday, March 6, 2009

Mainstream Media: Dead as Julius Caesar

With the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, countless eulogies have been penned that lament how quickly the newspaper industry is tanking, with dire warnings about what this means for investigative reporting, coverage via foreign bureaus, local news stories that develop over time, and countless other plaintive examples of alleged gaps that will develop in both the volume and quality of information available to those of us who, you know, read.

With problems at conglomerates like Hearst, The Tribune Company, and others, brought on by a combination of myopic business practices, accumulation of crushing debt, dropping ad revenues, and subscribers with actual choice about where they get their news, print has become somewhat quaint and old-fashioned as they run out in their slippers, yelling at the bloggers to get off their lawn.

The Seattle PI recently announced they were taking their business online only. Detroit papers only deliver a couple of days a week. As outlined in my Jan. 6 posting, Can I Wrap a Fish in the Internet, I played a little "name and shame" to point out the fundamental flaw - newspapers became a business that failed to adapt to a changing landscape because it was easier to sit back and count the steady dollars.
Television news is also struggling on a local and national level, as mega-corporations that own the news organizations have less interest in the legacy of Edward R. Murrow than they do John Pierpont Morgan.

As the sheer number of television news networks and programs exploded, some have noted an inversely proportional relationship to the quality and efficacy of the information presented.
It's sort of like fruit juice that's marketed as 50% less sugar - the truth is that it's 50% more water. The juice itself stretches a lot farther, the company selling the juice makes more money because water is cheaper than juice concentrate, and we're convinced that it's actually better for us, because c'mon, it's less sugar!

Case in point - the current financial system meltdown. Things are terrible, and have been for awhile. Unemployment numbers released this week show larger job losses than anticipated - more than 8% now. Credit markets are drying back up. Companies are closing down. Each day there's more doom and gloom, and the 24 x 7 news flacks are all finger-pointing about who is at fault, criticizing the stimulus plan, doing scores of on-the-scene reports about the demise of the auto industry and banking, and treating the ups and downs of the stock market like the blips on an EKG machine as they watch and wait for the economy to flatline so they can be the first to report it.

I haven't seen many stories on how these news organizations were complicit in these failures as they failed to dig into any of these stories until it was too late, much too cozy with the corporate executives that fielded their softball questions, not bright enough on matters financial to actually understand what was occurring, but masters of their domain when it came to completely abdicating their mandate to investigate and inform - the very things print and television journalists posit we will all mourn when it's gone.

The best piece of spot-on reporting that both explains the financial crisis and sticks a pushpin into the map to show the exact location of journalistic Waterloo did not come from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, or FOX. It came in the unlikely visage of Jon Stewart, in an eight-minute Daily Show segment where he absolutely eviscerates CNBC with an endless stream of video evidence that details how a financial news channel was wrong, almost every step of way, which for the rest of us would have obliterated any credibility or standing, and would probably have ended our careers if we were as terrible at our jobs as the misguided hacks at CNBC have been at theirs.

So here's my list of the top 5 reasons why these media outlets can't die fast enough.
  1. It's the information, stupid, not the delivery method. I used to be as tactile with my news as the next guy (providing the next guy was born before 1970 too), but as data moved online, I followed, because it was easier and faster to get news and information from a variety of sources on my schedule, not waiting until the next morning to get a few carefully selected morsels tossed on my front porch. It's like when Sam Kinison used to do his comedy bit about the starving people in Ethiopia - look around folks. You live in a desert. Nothing grows here. Nothing is ever going to grow here. You don't need airlifts of food - you need U-Hauls. Move to where the food is! Ahhh! AHHHHH!
  2. Entitlement loses to competition. I don't care what journalism school you attended, or if you got invited to the White House Correspondent's dinner. I'd actually prefer than you stay away from media events like those, and for chrissake, stop lining up to drink a beer and tell jokes with John McCain as he overcooks steaks at one of his 13 houses for you reporters who have repeatedly written of his maverick style and how he sticks up for the little guy before he jets off in his wife's private jet to campaign against an alleged elitist.
  3. You think it's about access to the power structure in government, business, and industry, but it's not. Reporting is, was, and has been about research, painstakingly putting together pieces of an information puzzle until a picture begins to take shape, then following it where it leads. But that doesn't get your picture taken with the rich and famous, or allow you to preen about your exclusive interview in primetime, does it?
  4. Maybe you're already dead - where's your passion? You can be neutral and still have a sharp edge to your journalism. Millions of people have lost their jobs. People are suffering. Bank of America is refusing to provide a list of who got millions of dollars in bonuses as this suffering intensified. Where's the outrage? There has to be at least two people at BoA who are pissed enough to give you that list for publication if you care enough to go get it.
  5. You don't know any more about the stuff you report than we could learn by going to Wikipedia. Watch the Stewart video linked here. If you are wrong, over and over again, you don't get to call yourself an expert anymore, and you certainly don't get to stand up there with an earpiece sticking out of your head, portraying yourself as someone who knows what's going on. You don't know what's going on. You only know what people with a vested interest in you NOT knowing what's going on told you to tell us.
There's a reason why Barack Obama took his message directly to the people during his campaign, and why he continues to look for ways to bypass the gatekeepers in the mainstream media today. People are smart enough to consume large volumes of information without the need for a filter or "expert" analysis, and we're more than happy to go get it wherever it is.

If you're in the information filtering and delivery business, you're as dead as Julius Caesar.

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