It seems like every week we hear about another nail in the coffin of traditional media, especially newspapers. According to NewspaperDeathwatch.com, the print editions of The Tucson Citizen, Rocky Mountain News, Baltimore Examiner and many more have fallen victim to some combination of Craigslist, free-online news, blogs, Twitter and the recession. In Canada, Global TV, CTV and CBC Television are petitioning the government for a “Save Local TV” fund (or “TV tax“, if you are in the Rogers Cable and Shaw camp).

There are few people who would deny that news publishers should get paid somehow. Hopefully fewer still¬† would deny that journalists should get paid for their work. However, the ad-supported model just isn’t providing enough revenue to justify the traditional news gathering infrastructure and casualties are mounting.

Anyone with a basic grasp of economics knows that if advertising space (supply) is exploding on every  social media site, then without an equal increase in advertisers (demand) the price will drop sharply. Some might see this as the necessary process of the broadcast media snake shedding its skin and hope that a new model will emerge. One could point to initiatives like the New York Times possibly issuing Kindles instead of print editions as potential models for the future, but I think there is an even wider effect beyond the future of news gathering.

The Associated Press and Wall Street Journal have taken a particularly strong stand as seen from this CNet article:

“There is no doubt that certain Web sites are best described as parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet,” Robert Thomson, the Journal’s editor, was quoted in Australian newspaper The Australian on Monday. “It’s certainly true that readers have been socialized–wrongly I believe–that much content should be free…And there is no doubt that’s in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. And they have little incentive to recognize the value they are trading on that’s created by others.”

In my limited investigation, a sizeable portion of the stories I see from blogs, tweets, and social networks have an original source in a traditional media outlet and in many cases social media provides a series of filters, commentary and summarized version of this content, which is certainly valuable. This is not to undermine the amazing work of some bloggers in crafting original news content and providing commentary, but the big question to me is this: If the pay walls go up on all of the news media we used to get for free online, will it negatively impact the quality or quantity of social media conversations around those news items?

Time will tell, and likely tell us sooner than we think.

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24 Comments

  1. Doug,

    Well written and thoughtful. Thank you. To put a finer point on this. It seems to me that this is not all that different than what the music industry has been facing, which is a matter of product value and controlled distribution channels for that product.

    Looking back at the music industry arch it’s clear that when the ability to control precisely how music was delivered to consumers (via records, tapes, and the radio) was well entrenched the industry reaped the rewards. Once the distribution channel for the products was disrupted by the internet and mp3′s the writing was on the wall. The fundamental value proposition of the record company and the product it produces is in question.

    The same is true for traditional print media and online publications. The ability to produce a product of value and control distribution is bordering on non-existent. Once the barriers to entry are eroded there is no longer any way to protect the product and it quickly becomes a low cost commodity. The advertising model falls apart with it.

    Jay

  2. Doug Walker

    Good points, Jay.

    Although, I think there is one major difference between the Music and News models.This could just be my bias, but quality news gathering is pretty much essential for a democratic and capitalist civilization to function.

    So if the music industry tanked and amatuers largely filled the ranks, we might be slightly less happy, but western society would continue to function. I am not convinced that citizen journalism could replace the important societal role professional journalists play.

    Can we go so far to say that without a choke point or significant barriers to entry, there can’t be a viable business model for journalism?

  3. I have to second what Jay says, that it is difficult to control the distribution channels. With the emergence of social media the world has become a smaller place and mainstream media has lost their stranglehold on readers. However, I think that they do still rely on each other quite a bit because everyday I receive and send out at least 10 tweets that may cite or link to traditional media websites. So I think there is a reliance in that aspect.

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  18. Jon

    It is interesting I came across this post today given that last week I attended a conference regarding the Canadian media’s representation of the H1N1 pandemic and the accuracy of its representation. It was widely argued that their were a number of inconsistencies in the news regarding H1N1 which spread through all other media outlets, including social media, which created a greater sense of confusion and fear around H1N1.

    One of the arguments behind this was that due of the severe cut backs in the production and distribution of traditional news media here in Canada (I believe similar cuts backs are occurring in the States), mainstream media no longer have the resources to ensure accurate reporting is accomplished especially during a crisis and often leading to inaccuracies. These inaccuracies are then filtered down through all other media outlets including social media. This of course, spreads and magnifies any inaccuracies.

    So I agree, as the pay walls go up on all of the news media, it will negatively impact, not the quantity of social media conversation, but the quality. These conversations could be based on inaccuracies coming from traditional news sources due to the lack of resources they have to provide accurate reporting.

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