The Mass Murder of Mass Media

[I wrote this originally for the University of Washington’s The Daily]

Every Sunday, I scan through my Yellow Pages-thick edition of The Seattle Times. It takes me about 10 minutes.

Then I ask myself: When am I finally going to cancel my print subscription?

Do I subscribe out of professional sympathy, being a one-time journalist myself, even as I lose patience with a product that is bereft of locally-reported content? It relies increasingly on syndicated material from out-of-towners like The New York Times and the Associated Press.

And as economic crisis descends, threatening all we once held near and dear, we may soon throw up our hands and declare, “So what if another familiar company dies?”

We will of course hear about how journalism is fundamental to a healthy democracy; that we cannot afford to lose solid, responsible reporting.

I agree. But who said that anything we created during the Industrial Revolution is our only resort?

I’m talking about all those companies that engage in “mass” anything, from The Seattle Times (mass media) to General Motors (mass production). With an explosion of choice — thanks to digital media and globalization — well-known business models are dying. Professionals are losing their strangleholds on their crafts. Competition for our attention and our wallets has exploded. Economic devastation just precipitates the change that is happening right now.

A few months ago, I cheekily declared the death of journalism, and that was to a room full of journalism educators at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Meanwhile, a colleague who teaches at my alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said he doesn’t know how much longer students will want to pay upwards of $60,000 for a degree that no longer guarantees a career.

Everything we once believed in — Wall Street, the White House, our hallowed front pages — have failed us at some point in the last decade, with devastating consequences. Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Lehman Brothers, WMD’s and Sept. 11 have all lead to a profound lack of faith in all that was once powerful in America.

I believe this presents us with a once-in-an-era opportunity to truly create a new media order — a healthier, more decentralized one.

As an open society, we do need to communicate facts and trustworthy information, but that doesn’t mean we need to rely on the old institutions to do this. If they didn’t exist, we would find a way to inform ourselves. Even if that meant we would have to resort to some modern-day version of our 18th century pamphleteers — i.e. blogs, tweets and independent, public journalism.

I’ve heard that journalism doesn’t have an audience problem, it has a consumer problem. Many of us just aren’t willing to pay for our news anymore, with so much more information now freely available online.

Actually, we never did pay for the true cost of news, mass marketing took care of the shortfall through those once unavoidable ads. There’s that word again: mass. And yes, even advertising is in crisis now thanks to the decline of mass media and the rise of so many other ways to share content.

So there’s still demand for news. There’s just less money to pay for supply — and multi-million dollar news anchor salaries.

Obviously, some models still work. This newspaper has a captive, on-campus audience, which guarantees enough self-sustaining revenue. Non-profit organizations such as National Public Radio are holding their own. And the new kids on the block, from the Huffington Post to the West Seattle Blog prove that you can actually make a living from creating relevant, trustworthy content for a sharply-defined — not “mass” — audience.

This new technological reality allows us all to think like communicators, and — if we actually want a journalism career — like entrepreneurs. Online distribution platforms provide great opportunities to produce new content creators, and to reach new audiences. Those old-guard news organizations that will survive the bloody revolution will be the ones who understand this opportunity — and harsh economic reality.

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