I got out of the habit of blogging when I had daily deadlines. When you write for a living, personal writing takes on a back-burner status with which I am no longer content. My current ambition for this blog is to comment on evolving developments at the intersection set of social networking, and online video -- two subjects in which I have some passing expertise.
What's happening right now, as I see it, are a number of converging factors that are going to make life for companies and content creators a little more challenging than in the past.
Journalism, as a craft and a profession, is imploding -- owing to softness in the advertising market, media consolidation, and no small amount of ineffectual hand-wringing on the part of media companies that find themselves unable, or unwilling to adapt to changing market conditions.
This has hammered my colleagues and I, content creators all (we used to be called editors, reporters and producers), who now find that wages for their prior job descriptions have fallen off, as has availability of jobs.
Blogging -- professionally, or semi-professionally -- is not a substitute for a salaried position with benefits for all but a few.
From the media company perspective, cutting costs -- adjusting to the current recessionary climate, plus ad market issues -- has led to sharp reductions in staffing, to say nothing of overseas bureaux, enterprise/investigative projects, and other "cost-centers."
This is a mistaken strategy, and I believe it exacerbates the death-spiral many media companies find themselves in today. Here's why. The value-added serious journalists provide to media companies is insight, context, and perspective. This is what distinguishes what I'll call commodity content (and by this I mean rewritten press releases, with one or two additional sources thrown in as a substitute for depth) from what I'll call real content (ie, something that leaves you wiser, and better informed than when you first loaded the page, opened the magazine, perused the newspaper, or turned on the television).
Commodity content has the advantage of being easy, and relatively cheap to produce. An intern could do it, and in some media organizations, is doing so as we speak. Even on a Sunday.
However, commodity content from the reader's/consumer's perspective is like a sugar-high -- momentarily interesting, but completely free of intellectual nutrition.
There are Web-based market dynamics that feed this tendency. Many news organizations have an atavistic theory that more stuff equals more traffic. It's a more-is-more idea, but it is fundamentally flawed when one considers the idea of reader retention, product differentiation, and the shift in reading habits that has happened over the last 6000 days (tip of the hat to Kevin Kelly's recent speech on this topic) since the advent of the Web.
In the old days, ie, 1993, people still had these things called subscriptions -- which viewed from the perspective of stickiness -- was a kind of guarantee for publishers and cable television: whether or not they watched the program, or opened the newspaper -- there was a presumption that if the person was paying for it, they were looking at the ads, which in turn gave the media companies a statistic they could use to sell ads.
Then those models were exported to the Web (WSJ, et. al.) where they largely failed completely, the WSJ being a somewhat notable exception. Salon flirted with subscriptions, then had to capitulate and adopt the daypass (watch an ad as a price of entry), then they capitulated further, and now readers can simply click through one interruptory screen.
So subscriptions have gone the way of the coelocanth (perhaps not extinct, but damned rare: the last one was found off the coast of Madagascar), and now we -- content creators and media companies -- operate in a sphere where readers/viewers are fickle and flighty, but also able to swarm over content that is genuinely good or interesting. So the relationship has been reversed. William Randolph Hearst once said "you give me the pictures, and I'll provide the war." In short, media companies were the kingmakers. Now readers and consumers make the hits, often to the complete surprise and befuddlement of media companies.
Andrew Sullivan recently remarked that this moment is the best time to blog. I'll disagree with him on one point in an otherwise fine article. He gets a salary for blogging. But the great mass of us do not. So yes, it's a wonderful time to become a subject-matter expert, blog ubiquitously about that, and use it to fuel your own career ambitions by any means possible.
For the media companies, however, it's yet another wakeup call, following a decade of howling alarms in a similar vein.
To adapt to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, media companies have to get just three things right to survive.
1) Give up on the idea of being first. Just be best. Fretting over whether you broke news isn't as important anymore. Someone will get the story. In a cloud of bloggers, amateur content producers, and a world of interested citizens, someone will beat you. It's okay. Where you can add value is by digging in, and not losing the story through a kind of institutional ADD that seems to pervade many news organizations. Josh Micah Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo DID break the US Attorney scandal -- bully for them. But then they stuck with it until it became a major news meme. News organizations could have done the same thing -- even if they weren't first, they could have been better. But they were timid. And now Josh owns the story, and the blog wags the dog of the MSM.
Return to fundamentals. Digging into a story and owning it is what you do best. Engaging with your readership and airing their views and concerns by generating content around those passions is what you have done best since the dawn of the printing press, and the advent of radio.
2) When you focus on cost-cutting, look not to the newsroom unless you believe eating your seed corn is the best way to survive a long winter. Look instead to the advertising sales department. This department has failed you for better than a decade. That softness in the ad market comes from them, not from the buyers. They have failed to persuade your advertisers that an ad on your website, your podcast, or your web TV program is free from value. Persuading is their job. Creating market demand is their job. If they can't do it, fire at will.
3) Convince your investors that historical returns of 2-5 percent will have to do, or buy them out and find other, more patient investors. The double-digit return mania of the 1990s on the part of investors has served neither party well. It's time to file for divorce, or renegotiate the relationships. Some of the most stable newspapers and television stations have been family-owned, or owned by a small circle of people that cared about democratic values (ie, a well-informed electorate). It may well be time for a return to that model.