Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Prediction: Media chaos hangs on

You'd think, with all the thousands of layoffs over the last few years, we'd finally be at the trough in the business cycle for newspapers and other media, at which they're done contracting and now are ready to grow once more.

Bob Garfield
Not so, says Bob Garfield, author, columnist and pundit.

"In the short term, news organizations will simply retrench with painful cutbacks, not only on investigations and enterprise reporting, but on the basis of monitoring local, state and national government," he said this morning. "The medium term will be much worse as liquidation and consolidation reduce the number of newspapers and broadcasters by at least half."

Garfield, who last summer published The Chaos Scenario, a book on the effect of the digital revolution on mass media and marketing, was among today's speakers on the first of two days of discussion in Washington, D.C., on the future of journalism.

It's the second time the Federal Trade Commission has convened a workshop on the topic, which the agency sees as vital to protecting consumer interests in the Internet age. This one, like the one held in December, is meant to delve into the changing economics of journalism.

Garfield didn't paint a pretty picture.

"It's going to be a frightfully barren period of chaos for advertising as an industry and for the media industry it has for 350 years supported," he said.

Mass media and marketing have existed in "a mutually sustaining yin and yang" for centuries. "Consumers have put up with ads as part of the deal -- the quid pro quo, the unspoken compact that provided all of us with free or subsidized content in exchange for having to sit through 20 years of  Mr. Whipple fondling toilet paper," Garfield said.

But the Internet has changed that, breaking the bond that existed between media and marketing.

"People are consuming more stuff, including newspapers and TV, than ever before in human history but the audience is carved in smaller and smaller slices," Garfield said. "... The thing is, as audiences fragment, the amount of revenue coming in for any given piece of content goes down, down, down, below the point where the publisher or broadcaster can continue to produce the thing."

So rather than great drama or point-on sitcoms, TV, for instance, offers lower-cost fare. "It's cheaper to do," he said. "But it's also suckier and draws fewer viewers to the ratings, still less revenue and so on until oblivion."

"It was a magnificent ecosystem," Garfield said. "But it turns out to have been just an accident of history -- a happy accident, but an accident nonetheless."

Now, everyone with a blog is a publisher; everyone with a video camera is a filmmaker. "The time when folks at the apex of the pyramid got to dictate to the audience, the electorate, the congregation, the electioners -- that is coming to an end," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, the herd will be heard."

You can listen to more from Garfield here, in an interview he gave last summer to NPR's "Talk of the Nation." (Garfield is a co-host of NPR's "On the Media.")

You can access the FTC workshop sessions (audio only) here.


Claire H, said...

Thanks for the update, Marlene. I'm crying inside about the continued short-term forecast. But I have to remain hopeful that what evolves out of this will be better than ever. The country can't survive without top-notch journalism.


Thanks for your comment, Claire. Yes, it's encouraging that there seems to be recognition that journalism is worth saving. Nonetheless, Garfield's outlook for the near term sure is discouraging.