Last night, the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS ran a wonderful segment on the changing demand for news and how the industry is responding. Ironically, the News Hour’s own website is a great example of how old news outlets can adapt to the changing times. Not only can the complete transcript and video of the show be found there, but the site also includes links to many of the organizations and technologies mentioned in the report.
The report noted that media organizations are being forced to make radical changes to their operations to cope with the increasing customization and specialization that viewers and listeners demand today. I really enjoyed the comments of Kinsey Wilson, the vice president and editor-in-chief of usatoday.com. Wilson said:
The audience is beginning to interact with news. We’ve gone from a world in which news organizations had either monopolistic control of certain markets or because of barriers to entry, fairly exclusive control over certain aspects of media, and consumers gravitated towards a few favored sources of news to a world in which there’s saturation news. We no longer have exclusive control of the printing press.
Indeed, just as Ithiel de Sola Pool predicted would be the case 20 years ago, new “Technologies of Freedom” have empowered average citizens in ways previous unimaginable and liberated us from the tyranny of scarcity. As I point out in my new book Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership, far from living in a world of information scarcity, today we live in a world of information abundance in which citizens struggle to cope with all the choices at their disposal. In this environment, the only thing that is in scarce supply is human attention. As Nobel Prize winning economist and psychologist Herbert A. Simon noted in a 1971 essay, “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
New media and communications technologies have created a “poverty of attention” problem that Simon probably could have never imagined. In our information-saturated, on-demand, on-the-go world, media multitasking has become a required skill needed to cope with all these choices. Indeed, whether is television, radio, newspapers, websites, or blogs, in this new western frontier, I’m increasingly finding that I need a variety of filters, portals and sorting mechanisms to keep track of everything and prioritize the media that most deserve my attention. (Thank God for TiVos, Google, and Bloglines!) I suspect that all of you reading this suffer from this same “problem,” if we can really call it that. After all, having all this information at our collective disposal is a truly wonderful thing compared to the world we use to live in. But sorting through all this information efficiently is vital if we hope to consume as much of it as possible.
Now, think about the poor news organizations who are being forced to adapt to these new realities or face potential extinction. As last night’s News Hour report made clear, America’s oldest news outlets–newspapers–are really struggling to remain relevant. They are employing innovative techniques and solutions to keep up with all these disruptive technological changes, but it remains to be seen if they can stem the tide. The generational demographics work against them with most youngsters opting for newer forms of media. Worse yet, their old business model continues to hurt their chances since the sunk costs associated with newspaper production are so steep. Scholars have found that 98 percent of cities only have a single daily newspaper because the fixed costs associated with producing the very first copy of the paper can run as high 40 to 45 percent of the total cost of operating the paper. Fixed costs of that magnitude could be an absolute kiss of death in a world of 10 million blogs, where millions of average of citizens can report on the world around them without having own a printing press or spend more than a few bucks to put the site together.
Regardless of what the media critics say, the world really has changed in amazing ways. Hell, even PBS says so!