Monday, 5 April 2010

The media and the message

A former colleague and I sat down recently and were chatting about the struggles newspapers were having in a digital age. Now, a lot has been written on this topic, but so far a great deal has missed the point (In my admittedly humble opinion).

I frequently quote the following adage 'news is a story someone doesn't want you to hear, anything else is advertising'. By that definition most news is advertising. Most people are simply unaware that their news is written by PR firms and regurgitated by the press.

I should say for the record, I have no idea what the origins of that quote are, in fact I may have made it up to illustrate my point.

Newspapers are increasingly the medium by which the message is transmitted. The messages they produce are comment pieces, usually following the agenda of the paper itsel.f. They pump out material generated by others, rather than reporting news. This isn't true all the time, but surprisingly often it is.

Now, I'm fortunate. Having written a few press releases I know roughly what is and isn't PR material. I reckon I get an 80% hitrate. But most people are aware of the 'falseness' of news, but only subconciously. What I dont think people are aware of is exactly how calculated it is, or how little of what the read is actually news.

With the proliferation of new media news sources traditional sources look increasingly A) expensive B) dull. Why would I read a story about something that happened yesterday on a piece of dead tree and pay for it? I can get my Jordan news for free, thanks.

I could go onto the websites and take a look there, but the websites arent offering me anything which I can't get elsewhere. Personally I stay fairly well tuned in to the Guardian and Telegraph websites, I rather like them, and I can usually find what I'm looking for. Plus I can always find something on one or the other to annoy me when I need a little middle of the day rage based pick me up.

But the old school journos have two things, access and experience. Unfortunately their access is too often granted from collusion and their experience is from rewriting press releases.

The thing I would pay for is news. Actual news. Things which shake society and redefine our relationship with power. Watergate, expenses (yes, it has happened in recent times), the tobacco industry expose on 60 minutes (limited though it was in many ways). I honestly think thats what more people would like to see. Remember the days when Parkinson would ask the same question a dozen times to get an answer? I miss those days.

Murdoch and others have to consider carefully what they are offering behind their paywalls. If its the same old thing, well I'll read that somewhere free, as will most people. The Telegraph can replace the Times, and I'll cheerily swap The Mirror or Mail for the Sun.

But if the formidable power of these institutions is to be redirected to true journalism, now that I'd pay for. That would be a truly unique service, one which I can't get from the blogs or any other source.

If the newspapers want to get back on top of the heap when it comes to the news and make money, there are three options:

1) They have to offer a unique product
2) They have to offer the same product as everyone else, but substantially cheaper then the competition
3) They have to provide the product at the same price as their competition, but make it more convenient.

I think what we'll see is a combination of 2 & 3. Option 1 is my idealistic way of confronting the world. Online media is cheap, and there is money to be made from advertising if you can get the volume of people onto the website in the first place.

The Guardian's iPhone app is (as I understand it) profitable, bringing money back into the company. This is unique in the industry (again, this is second hand, but from a source I trust). They've found a convenient way to deliver news and provided it at a price people will pay, so, unsurprisingly they do.

I'm increasingly convinced at least one of the papers will go entirely out of business in the next 2-3 years. Circulation is through the floor and innovation is nearly non existant. Which paper that might be, I dont know, certainly it'll be a broadsheet.

There are so many options for papers to move into the 21st century, so far they've been stubbornly resistant to doing so, but perhaps when they finally start to feel the pinch they'll do it.

Until then, lets all enjoy reading press releases from big companies printed on dead trees.

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