The titans of the legacy media are in a whole heap of trouble, and they know it. The digital world has not been kind to them. With doorstep and sidewalk distribution sinking due to the changing habits of where, when, and how Americans get their news coupled with the rising cost of paper, an industry-wide panic has ensued. Boxed into a corner, the members of the media elite have only a few options left, and not one appears to represent a magic bullet.
Even a cursory look at Internet Live Stats should send chills up the spines of elite media executives. At this writing, there are 1,716,356,392 websites in the cybersphere. This number is expanding at a dizzying pace. If only 1% are news-oriented, that would make for more than 17 million digital news sites with which they must compete. So, one can see the enormity of the problem for the old guard of print and television news. So far, the response of the legacy media has been to engage in a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole.
Plan A or Plan B?
In a free-market economy, businesses generally have two choices: They can adapt by changing their internal structures or simply close shop. There’s no point in hitching up your horse and buggy when a Model T is available at a reasonable cost. Spinning vinyl at 33 rpm is silly when you can tap your phone and listen to any song the world over. And today’s most crowded mall is not in Tyson’s Corner, VA – but on your browser. The internet forces businesses to adjust constantly to a volatile and ever-more-demanding marketplace.
The $84 billion fitness industry is a case in point. As a family of four with two special needs children, we’ve been hard-pressed to find a health club that can keep open its doors. Several years ago, we joined a small fitness club in our town. When that went belly-up, we moved to another that was one neighborhood over. But a year later that business went under as well. Finally, we found a local athletic facility only to be informed six months into our membership that it also was ceasing operations. Then a friend mentioned Lifetime Athletic Club. That’s where we discovered the root of the problem.
Lifetime Athletic is not a health club; it’s a resort – a miniature world that should have its own ZIP Code. Six gazillion pieces of equipment, four pools inside and out, personal trainers galore, a spa for massages and manicures, childcare for the kiddies, haircuts for the husbands, and a double mocha smoothie on your way out the door. Who can compete with that?
We joined in a New York minute.
Similarly, the legacy media are having a whale of a time contending with the myriad digital news and analysis websites that provide the best of both newspapers and TV, adding the vital elements of immediacy and interactivity that do not exist in a static tabloid or broadsheet. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, “weekday print circulation decreased 12%, and Sunday print circulation decreased 13%” in 2018. As well, Pew found online news websites like Liberty Nation “are more popular among the powerful 30–49” age demographic. The silver lining is that most of the newspapers have been forced to establish and expand their own digital operations, and those numbers are rising. The New York Times online operation, according to Pew, rose 27%, and The Wall Street Journal’s 23%. This helps to offset the losses in print circulation, but how long are these newspapers willing to have one side of their operations subsidize the other?
The difference here from the health club, record, or carriage is that members of the Fourth Estate consider themselves to be different from a run-of-the-mill business. They don’t believe the mandates of the marketplace should apply to them. Of late, newspapers have banded together and trudged up Capitol Hill to see if Congress will permit them to collectively bargain for compensation from the giant digital platforms that use their content for free. Their hope hinges on legislators forcing the digital devils – entities like Google and Facebook — to make a deal with them. They are lobbying for something called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. No word on whether legislators will intervene; given their propensity to put their finger in every pie, there is reason to believe they may indeed come to the rescue.
Perhaps the overwhelming competition faced by the custodians of legacy media is a principal reason they seem so, well, angry these days. And maybe the frustration has boiled over so much that they feel the need to publish dubious articles with little basis in fact – just to get attention.
Like a cornered animal, the legacy media, increasingly marginalized by the marketplace and pounded on all fronts by this president, have become more dangerous by the day. The question is whether the provision of some relief from the uncompensated use of their content by digital competitors will result in a return to responsible journalism.
Don’t hold your breath.