Legacy media, the Internet, and journalism: a roundup

Profit margins (if any) of many legacy media – particularly the ones with journalistic contents – have been dropping at accelerating speed since the year 2000. Since then, external factors such as the burst of the Internet bubble and the economic downturn after the 9/11 attacks have converged with industry-specific issues, namely overall shrinking audiences for quality media, and audience fragmentation. As they rather turn to online sources, particularly younger demographic target groups fail to pick up the media habits of older generations, thus substantially changing the perception of what used to be called the “news cycle”, as well as the economics of the media sector, in the process.

The impact of real-time news

News have no longer the status of summaries delivered at fixed time intervals, as epitomized in US TV anchor Walter Cronkite’s famous closing line “And that’s the way it is”. Rather, they have become real-time information streams in the online environment, where the deadline is always now. As a consequence, news coverage has become perpetually “breaking”, even where the subject is of minor consequence or urgency, and therefore episodic: Bits of information are added as they emerge, corrections made constantly, and ever-changing versions churned out. Commercially, such “churn” is based on the desire to command as much audience attention as possible by maximizing page views and subsequent advertising impressions.

The real-time mode of news also means that news audiences increasingly rely on multiple sources in order to form their own picture or opinion of current affairs. What used to be the professional editor’s task – cross-checking and consolidating several independent reports into a coherent and dependable article –, is now user-driven and may even bypass the offerings of traditional media brands. At the same time, even the professionals turn to “networked” journalism by merging news agency material and field reporter input with citizen contributions delivered through social networks or directly to a news outlet.

Legacy media are affected by this tectonic shift threefold: First, declining audience translates into lower advertising revenue; second, the advent of the Internet for the first time created an abundance of advertising space, thus lowering CPMs, and therefore the monetary value of surrounding content, dramatically; and third, subscription and sales revenues went down as well. In addition to that, the notion that public finances urgently need to be consolidated – ultimately brought to the boil by the credit crunch – even affects the income of public service broadcasters, which are facing severe cuts in many countries.

As a result of all this and of globalisation in general, there was also a considerable change of ownership from strategic to financial investors. In Western Europe, many long-established, incumbent publishing dynasties with a genuine interest in providing public value (if often out of partisan political motivations) were forced to yield to private equity and hedge funds. The new owners applied their tried-and-tested incisive management toolboxes to media companies in a similar fashion as they would have to any other business, thus effectively reducing journalistic content to a mere marketing factor even at outlets which previously were known to be quality-conscious.

In Eastern Europe, a lot of legacy media did not even reach maturity before they were hit by the abovementioned crises and/or taken over by international conglomerates or financial investors. Plus, of course, the independence and impartiality of public service broadcasting is very diverse within the entire European Union. While some countries conscientiously keep public television and radio at arm’s length from the state, other governments exert different degrees of influence over pubcasters.

Social issues of the journalistic trade

These entire factors compound to a major change in the appreciation of journalism as such, the self esteem of active journalists, as well as the actual career prospects in the sector. These developments affect even the biggest media organisations, albeit so far usually to a lesser extent than smaller, regional, or otherwise precarious ones.

The immediate consequence for a great number of journalists – as well as journalism school alumni – is that they jump the fence and work in corporate communications or press offices, where working conditions and salaries tend to be much better than in press organisations. It is to their advantage that the demand for communication officers is rising, as even smaller companies and NGOs consider professional PR management indispensable. Ironically, those changing sides are lost for journalism, because the move into corporate communications impedes their credibility; at the same time however, their output increasingly shapes the reporting of ostensibly independent media outlets, since pre-fabricated content comes much cheaper than genuine journalistic work and usually delivers good production value at that.

Those journalists who do stay in the business are forced to work on shorter contracts or as freelancers, to cover larger geographical areas, or to take on more technical duties including web development, translation, and media monitoring if they want to keep up their living standards. Others face pressure to simply produce more, for multiple platforms, cheaper, and increasingly with marketing angles in mind, checking whether any story is literally sellable to the audience and/or advertisers.

With more and more work outsourced to freelancers, newsrooms become increasingly empty or are being converted into multimedia control centres. Foreign desks, if they remain in existence at all, see ever less travel to cover topics in the field but have to rely on desk research; networks of foreign correspondents are reduced or shut down. Many freelancers do not get any travel reimbursements even if they are on assignment. Worse still, more legacy media are now adopting the ways of the blogosphere, where remuneration amounts to being published in the first place, yet does not involve payment.

All told, the social situation of journalists as a group is becoming increasingly precarious. The numbers of those in adequate permanent employment are shrinking, and the low fees earned by freelancers tend to render the job of a journalist unattractive for all but the respective youngest generation. Few are able to make a living off journalism alone and are forced to take on second jobs.

Journalism and the Social Web

At the same time, stakeholder journalism gains traction and thus presents yet another challenge to conventional full-time journalists. Stakeholder journalism comes in many shapes: The scope ranges from commercial or interest-driven PR over genuine, deeply committed subject-matter experts to citizen contributors, and it finds an outlet primarily in, yet is not limited to, blogs.

Following recent developments in the social web, the genre of blogging is undergoing a process of professionalization. While in the early days, blogs were more frequently used as a communication means of a rather personal nature, the bulk of such exchanges has now moved into social networks such as Facebook and microblogging as embodied in Twitter; nonetheless, both services also play an increasingly important role in the dissemination of news.

This leaves the blogosphere to cover subjects that require deeper analysis, carefully thought-through arguments, and well-presented opinion, thus effectively sifting the wheat from the chaff in terms of qualification, motivation, and sustainability of bloggers. Not surprisingly, ever more journalists take to blogging on the side, thus meeting public demand while building their “personal” audience base. In parallel, a plethora of new actors have entered the scene, many of them professionals in their own right, yet not necessarily with any particular news or media background.

What basically all stakeholder journalists as well as occasional and citizen journalists have in common though is that publishing is neither their main profession nor a relevant source of income. As more and more conventional journalists take to blogging on the side, and while legacy media draw on stakeholder or citizen sources, the boundaries are blurring to a point where journalists as we know them, i.e. the ones employed by medium- to large-scale legacy media organisations such as newspapers, magazines, or broadcasters, and held to generally agreed standards, may become extinct rather soon. Accordingly, there are voices suggesting that the notion of journalism be separated from the (legacy) media for good.

The question of funding

So far unsolved, however, remains the question of financial viability. Most legacy media organisations have simply resorted to cost-saving strategies and, failing to match former advertising revenues online, try (as yet unsuccessfully) to monetize their content by way of pay walls. Web-based publications or Internet subsidiaries of legacy media face the fact that only few manage to generate sufficient ad revenues to sustain a journalistic business, seeing that a million page impressions per month are the minimum precondition to launch any meaningful advertising sales effort in the first place. Earnings through Google AdSense and similar programmes amount for most sites to a mere pittance. The Internet economy structurally fosters oligopolistic structures such as in the “Long Tail”, where only a small number of publishing outlets attract sufficient income, while the huge variety of smaller and special-interest-related sites just barely scrape by, if at all.

Aside from volunteering, different forms of news media financing are therefore being considered. Even the one of those that is least popular with journalists, interest-driven bankrolling – for instance by political movements or companies –, can be considered as having merit in networked media: There will always be competitors, political opponents, or diverging expertises on hand and ready to be explored by inquisitive members of the audience. Other proposals rather build on the notion of public service, calling for various forms of subsidy out of tax money, statutory levies, or for direct donations from the respective constituents or patrons of a website.

Thanks Flickr user Chapendra for the photography.

Please see also Farhad Manjoo (Slate): This Is Not a Blog Post. Blogs and Web magazines are looking more and more alike. What’s the difference? and the OECD’s 2010 report on The Evolution of News and the Internet.