Future of Media: Lots of Questions, But No Easy Answers

The Columbia School of Journalism released a massive report on Tuesday that looks at the current landscape of digital media — the small and the large, the mainstream and the alternative — and finds what will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the industry: disruption and confusion, and a notable lack of any obvious solutions. Although there are hints of some possible new business models, the bottom line is that journalists and media companies simply don’t understand enough about what is happening to their traditional business. And until they do, the chaos is likely to continue.

The study (which is available as a PDF document here) is broken down into nine sections, which give an overview of some of the major trends that have been impacting the media business — including the rise of aggregators such as The Huffington Post, the fact that online advertising produces a lot less revenue per user than traditional media does, the various experiments with news paywalls (“many efforts to get readers to pay for content have been fitful, poorly executed and motivated more by ideology than economics”) and the rise of low-cost competitors such as Examiner.com. And all of this in the context of an explosion of information, as described by journalism professor Vin Crosbie:

Within the span of a single human generation, people’s access to information has shifted from relative scarcity to surplus.

The report also looks at some of the alternative models that media organizations are trying both on the hyper-local level — via community sites such as The Batavian in upstate New York, which is virtually a one-man operation run by Howard Owens — and at national publications such as Forbes, which has been blurring the line between editorial and marketing content in a way that some traditional journalists may find troubling. But while some publishers are having some success with new ventures such as Groupon-style “daily deals” platforms and other experiments, there are few signs of a silver bullet solution that will make it easy for existing media companies to transition from their old way of doing business to a new one.

As Clay Shirky has said, the problem we suffer from now isn’t information overload, it’s “filter failure.” That should leave plenty of room for media companies and journalists to act as filters and curators for this information onslaught — and many are doing this, including Andy Carvin at NPR. But how do media companies monetize this? And can it ever produce enough revenue to make up for the loss of the old business model? Those are the questions that media entities everywhere are struggling with.

The report notes that despite its massive online readership, the old print business still produces 80 percent of the revenue for The New York Times — and one reason why those large reader numbers don’t produce much revenue is that the majority of those readers are “flybys” who rarely spend much time on the site and don’t return very often.

As Felix Salmon of Reuters notes in his analysis of the study, the fundamental issue for all media companies is that the traditional connection between their content and the advertising that pays for the infrastructure needed to produce that content — the buildings and staff and trucks and satellite time — has been disrupted. In the past, media companies controlled the platform, whether it was the newspaper or the magazine or the TV network, and advertisers paid to have their messages inserted into that platform. The study notes:

Digital disrupts the aggregation model that was so profitable for so long. Almost no one used to read the entire newspaper every morning, and audiences frequently tuned in and out of the network news at night. Yet, news organizations sold their advertising as if every page was turned and every moment was viewed.

This is all part of the broader trend of media disintermediation, or what Om calls “the democracy of distribution.” The web — and social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube — allow information to flow freely and to be published instantly by non-traditional journalists in non-traditional ways. But so far media companies have yet to figure out how to deal with this in any concrete way. Even though these trends have become obvious by now, and individual journalists such as Andy Carvin and Nick Kristof at The New York Times are exploring how to use these tools to create and distribute powerful journalism, few media outlets have made these new processes a part of their business.

So far, the most ambitious attempts to reinvent the business of media on a large scale have come from companies like the Journal-Register Co., where CEO John Paton is pushing an ambitious “digital first” approach and has cut costs dramatically. But in a way, the company is more equipped to make these kinds of aggressive moves because it went bankrupt before Paton took over.That gave the company a lot of leeway to reinvent and try new things.

Other media entities have to figure out how to reinvent their businesses without effectively starting with a clean slate, and that is much more difficult. The only thing the Columbia report makes clear is that they have to do it somehow and quickly; if anything, the disruption in the industry is accelerating. Which is why experimentation is so important — unfortunately, experimentation is not something the traditional media business is known for.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Zert Sonstige and Zarko Drincic