If newspapers and traditional media outlets are going to survive in the digital age, new economic models will be needed—and soon.
At “The Audience and the Issues,” Bill Baker, Ph.D., the Claudio Acquaviva S.J. Chair and Journalist in Residence at Fordham, and president emeritus of Channel Thirteen/WNET, joined a panel of experts to explore how that might happen.
The discussion, which was held on Nov. 12 at the Lincoln Center campus, also featured Gerry Byrne, senior vice president of the entertainment group at Nielsen Business Media, and Dean Ringel, a partner at Cahill Gordon, LLP.
Baker prefaced the event by noting that the print media, which once comprised roughly 60,000 reporters, have dwindled to about 40,000, and the number is still dropping. Even though other forms of traditional media have not been hit as hard as newspapers, the effects of their decline are being felt in other ways.
“Over the last few years, the electronic media business has made every effort to become monetized, mostly by the investment community that has seen this as the kind of business that can deliver high profits for its investors” Baker said.
“In the process, the business became highly leveraged, so last year when the markets collapsed, a lot of the electronic media businesses collapsed along with them,” he said. “Along with that came a collapse of the news. Where do television, radio and the Internet get their news from? Well, they get their news principally from print.”
Baker suggested that while it may be too late to save any so-called “legacy” media businesses, it is not too late to teach people to be smarter consumers of news.
“How do you get to be a smarter consumer? It’s taught at universities and it’s taught at primary and secondary schools,” he said. “People have to start understanding how messed up journalism is right now, and they have to start paying attention to what good sources are now.”
Byrne said that sentiment also applies to students interested in the media careers.
“What’s shocking to me is how little thought a lot of the people have given to the challenges,” he said. “The first step for young people is to really assess where things are going so they can be in an intellectual dialogue with the people who are currently in the business, because the people who are currently in the business are looking for solutions.”
This isn’t to say that people should be overly depressed over the state of the news industry, though. Byrne noted that, just like newspapers, the movie business is going through tumultuous times. For example, he noted that studios that want to release movies straight to multiple platforms are squeezing exhibitioners.
Consumers will benefit in many ways from the shakeups and innovations.
“You could easily get suicidal over just thinking about where this is all going, but the important thing is to think about how audiences that view us really have a lot more opportunity to be in the drivers seat,” he said.
Ringel tackled the issue of news aggregators such as Google News, which benefit from linking to media outlets that deliver original content. From a legal perspective, he said, it’s important to note that copyright law covers the actual words and pictures of a story, but not the physical effort expended by reporters—“the sweat of the brow.”
“Aggregators say that they drive readers to newspapers, that people click on the site and click through to the newspaper’s page. This is very much debated in the literature,” Ringel said. “But no one would dispute that the revenue newspapers derive from their Internet sites doesn’t begin to cover the cost of news bureaus. It doesn’t cover the cost of news-gathering, which is the heart of the process if newspapers are going to produce quality work.”
One concept that is being explored, he said, is related to “hot news,” which addresses the notion that someone who has exclusive access to news with a competitive value deserves protection from others who might try to use it to their own advantage.
“The idea behind the hot news doctrine is that a newspaper—once it has produced a story based on the hard work of a reporter—does not see that work quickly summarized by a competitor, who then is able to compete with the newspaper,” he said.
As for the future, Baker noted that he was encouraged by the response of some business students he recently met when they saw the business plan of a major newspaper.
“I expected these MBA students to analyze these statements and do all the things that MBAs do, and I had on the screen the website of the newspaper, and almost to a person, the students said, ‘Where’s the beef? There’s nothing on that screen that makes me even want to look at it, much less pay for it,’” he said.
“These business students focused not so much on the numbers, which is what the board of directors only focused on, but they focused on the content, which is where the focus should be.”
The panel was sponsored by the Center for Communication and the Fordham Graduate School of Education.