Journalism: The best of times, and the worst of times

There are plenty of people ready to give their opinions about where the traditional media business is going, and how the disruption caused by digital and social media should be handled — but not all of them have a grasp of what is involved in those wrenching changes, and so their advice often tends to be one-sided. Veterans of the industry itself, meanwhile, often prefer to hunker down and pull up the drawbridge rather than talking about those changes and what they mean. That’s why it’s so refreshing to read what long-time newspaper editor, Pulitzer judge and now journalism professor Tim McGuire thinks about where the industry is and where it is going — and how it should get there.
McGuire, the former managing editor and editor-in-chief of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is now a professor at Arizona State University’s journalism school, where he is the Russell Chair for the business of journalism, and spends a lot of time talking to students about the future of media. More than anything, McGuire says we need to keep in mind that the industry is undergoing a Schumpeterian moment — in other words, a time of creative destruction as described by economist Joseph Schumpeter. And whether you focus on the word “creative” or the word “destruction” says a lot about your viewpoint on the future, he argues:

If a student looks at our current news ecosystem and sees promise, excitement and energizing challenge then the media world is for them. If they look at that same ecosystem and rue the loss of what we had and see only doom approaching, that person needs to exit the media world quickly.

Old media’s gatekeeper days are over

That’s actually good advice for lots of people in the industry, not just for students, and it’s also one of the reasons why advisors to the industry like Anil Dash argue that mainstream media outlets need to think more like startups — meaning experiment, test and re-test, iterate quickly, and so on. Unfortunately, the media industry is still shackled to print-based advertising, as former Morgan Stanley internet analyst Mary Meeker pointed out in a presentation she did recently, and that makes it difficult to move quickly in new directions.

McGuire also makes the point that what the media world is undergoing is just a microcosm of the disruption that the social web is having on everything from business to politics — a loss of control that has “penetrated all of society,” as he puts it. For media, those changes have meant giving up their gatekeeper (and toll collector) role, says McGuire — something that has become built into the culture of mainstream media. But continuing to see themselves in that role in the era of multi-directional, real-time media is “a fantasy,” he says:

In old media the formula was simple. We edit. You read. The interactive web made that forced relationship a joke. People can talk, share, argue AND do business with each other. The newspaper was edited on a 24 hour cycle. You read when we said you could read. TV brought you news on THEIR schedule. We “pushed” news on readers and reader options were limited. Now you read, watch, and search whenever you want and you demand immediacy.

To survive, become a guide and a helper

And what does that mean for traditional media players? It’s not a great prognosis, according to McGuire, who says that print will remain a force for some time but is rapidly dwindling in importance. But in the end he seems to believe that the disruption will be fundamentally positive, and that media entities of all kinds who focus on the right things will come out of the transformation alive. The right things, he says, are how to help readers and information consumers find what they need, when and where they need it:

I believe traditional newspapers are profoundly troubled, but not necessarily doomed. Some will go to publishing a few times a week. Some will die and that will be okay. Despite my life-long love affair with newspapers I believe the market will successfully sort itself out. News operations that find the right blend of digital, print and device-centric content will thrive as long as they yield more and more power to audiences. Publishers must collaborate with their audiences or the market will tell them they are unnecessary.

When it comes to questions about apps vs. web and paywalls vs. open access, or even the issue of how to replace declining print advertising revenue, McGuire argues — much as industry analyst Ken Doctor has — that there is no single magic recipe that will allow newspapers or traditional media players of any kind to return to the glory days. All that remains, he says, is to find ways of adapting to the demands of the market and then start figuring out how to take advantage of those. And slapping a paywall around everything is not the answer:

[T]he idea that legacy media can find a silver bullet such as tablets, or pay walls, or reinvigoration of old advertising models is silly and reckless. The only silver bullet is dramatic reinvention. It is nuts to think that in a commoditized news world publishers can use a pay wall like a traditional subscription fee. If publishers think a pay wall is a seamless re-creation of the past they are indeed on the road to perdition.

That’s not to say McGuire doesn’t believe in charging users for content. But he argues that media companies have to think about what they are offering in return, and if it is just commodity news or information then they will almost inevitably fail. Adding value is the only way to justify charging users, he says, and traditional outlets have to think hard about what value they are adding (McGuire also recommends advice on what former gatekeepers should be thinking about now from Digital First Media’s Steve Buttry).
The editor-turned-professor goes on to say that it’s not important to assign blame for the forced transformation the industry is undergoing, any more than it was important to blame someone for the transition from horse-and-buggies to the automobile. What is crucial for media companies to recognize, McGuire says, is that the web has changed the entire structure of the information business — replacing scarcity with abundance — and “operators who choose to act as if they are still in a world of scarcity face almost immediate extinction.” You’ve been warned.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Denise Chan, David Reece and Giuseppe Bognanni