Monday, July 14, 2008

BoSacks Speaks Out: Why Media See 'Depression' As Real

BoSacks Speaks Out: It was Dr. Joe Webb who reminded me yesterday of the old Harry S. Truman quote, "It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours." The publishing industry along with the rest of the economy is hurting right now, although as is usually the case, some few titles are bucking the downward trend and showing some actual gains.

I think it is sadly a double whammy on print, because the economy will surely rise again, but will the advertisers return as they used to when the economy bounced back? At best the answer is yes for some and no for some others. We were struggling enough in this digital transition period and don't need an additional economic anxiety attack to have advertisers focus on identifiable ROI while tightening their belts and reducing their budgets.

If you add the increasingly visible sustainability factor into the publishing caldron of issues to contend with, you start to see the makings of a perfect storm. That storm is still on the horizon, but it is looming and it is large. As with any storm there is always hope it will remain distant with only the booms of thunder to remind us of our peril and help us keep our focus as we steer correctly towards open waters and profitable information distribution.

It is going to take very nimble, very aggressive, visionary management to lead the way.

I wrote a blog a few days ago for another site where I listed the following as the last of several predictions for the end of 2008 and that that seems fitting and appropriate to refer to here:

More publishing dinosaur management who don't already have their own facebook page, nor the knowledge of how to build one, will be asked to either jump from the executive terrace or take what's left of the money and run.

"We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
John W. Gardner (American Writer and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, 1912-2002)

Layoffs And Closings Help Explain Why Media See 'Depression' As Real

One of the hardest things for reporters to do is to distance themselves when they become part of a story. That's precisely the problem with journalists covering the U.S. economy.

We're a long way from it being what NBC claims is "a bust." We're not in another "Depression" either, despite dozens of network stories to that effect. But many journalists think things are that bad because their own industry is in chaos.

Ad sales have plummeted and online sales aren't making up for it. Media outlets are closing or laying off staff. There are at least 4,000 fewer jobs for reporters and editors than in 2000, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The list of media laying off or buying out staff includes some of the best-known outlets: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times, Media General, Tribune and Thomson Reuters. And those are just since May.

Top names in journalism are walking out the door or being pushed. Such popular writers as David Broder and Tony Kornheiser joined more than 100 co-workers to take the latest buyouts at the Washington Post - the third round in just five years. The newsroom is down 25% as a result, according to the paper's media critic, Howard Kurtz.

In just a month and a half, a media blog run by the Poynter Institute cited roughly 40 stories detailing the red ink being spilled on the floors of newsrooms nationwide.

Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group (which owns almost 60 dailies), said recently that there will be two types of newspapers in the future - "those that survive, and those that die." He went on to claim "as many as 19 of the top 50 metro newspapers in America are losing money today, and that number will continue to grow."

That adds a little perspective when news reports dwell on problems at General Motors or the possible sale of Anheuser-Busch. Journalists have covered market changes in other industries with obvious anxiety.

An American Journalism Review analysis was titled "Why a lot of newspapers aren't going to survive" and included a prediction that "a lot of major metros" will close.

The few that survive will be smaller and possibly even free. Tribune has announced plans to trim the news hole in its papers. Stock pages have followed classifieds in moving to the Internet. Whole sections of newspapers have gone away.

Those are the news outlets reporters and producers turn to every day. TV and radio news departments have long been famous for "rip-and-read," where they lift an entire story from the newspaper.

That's the context for your economic news. Your paper screams disaster with every story about business. The evening news broadcast repeats the claim. Both reflect the media mind-set about their changing business as much as they do reality.

In December 2005, the big issue was the declining auto industry. CBS's Trish Regan might as well have been discussing journalism when she said: "Jobs in traditional industries, the ones that helped build this country, are slowly disappearing." That could be the epitaph for traditional journalism except for the word "slowly."

Journalists know it but seem unable or unwilling to adapt. Instead they do what they do best - they communicate. They tell stories. The news becomes one long ode to a dying economy. Mortgage crisis, debt crisis, housing crisis. Every story is a crisis, but the unstated crisis is the very one reporters are coping with.

The Washington Post's Neil Irwin recently tried explaining the disconnect between economic reality and ordinary Americans' opinions. People are saying, "It is not just bad, it is run-for-the-hills terrible," he said. Irwin's pathetic defense of the economy: "It's not all that grim."

What followed should have been a detailed analysis of how the mainstream media have misrepresented the economy of the greatest nation on Earth. But Irwin didn't even try. He mocked claims that the media could have a major role in the gloom.

"There is no obvious reason that it (media impact) would be more pronounced now than in 2001 or 1990, when consumer confidence did not drop as much as it has recently," he claimed.

But he ignored major changes in the media landscape - the rise of the 24-7 news cycle, the increased power of the Internet and, especially, the blurring of lines between unbiased journalism and so-called "analysis."

Reporters blur those lines every night on the evening news, convinced the problems impacting media must reflect society in general. That same sense of self-importance has undermined journalism for decades and now does the same to the U.S. economy.

Gainor is the Boone Pickens fellow and vice president of the Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute.

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