Recently, I viewed a fascinating discussion on the future of traditional news outlets such as television and newspapers. Entitled “Media Watch”, the CBC news-panel discussion dealt with the future of print and network news in an age of social media. The discussion zeroed in on key trends and factors that are shaking the traditional news business to its very foundations.
Foremost among these trends is traditional television-broadcast news and newspapers are seeing their audience numbers in free-fall. In North America, for example, network news in the 1980s used to garner some 50 million viewers nightly; now, they’re lucky if they can get half that number. News consumers, particularly the younger generation, are flocking to other formats and platforms like social media, where they can get their update of news when and how they want.
Audiences migrating to social media means ad revenue drops for traditional media
Advertising revenue sources for traditional media are drying up. As audiences migrate toward the Internet and social media, so too do advertisers’ dollars. Many readers and viewers no longer rely on traditional media as a vehicle both to get their news and to learn, for example, about sales at the local shopping mall. The result: traditional media such as newspapers find themselves with less and less ad revenue to fund their operations, including hiring reporters. This leads to a decline in these outlets’ ability to pay for gathering the “hard” news associated with traditional news networks. Instead, these outlets may be forced to chase advertisers’ dollars through such things as “branded” content, which may cross the line from information into entertainment. This in turn can further erode the credibility and trustworthiness of traditional media, and therefore reduce their perceived value, at least in the eyes of many of their traditional audience (read “boomers and older”).
Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite?
The panelists also discussed the notion of skepticism among younger audiences. Many no longer seem to trust traditional media outlets in the way audiences used to. News anchor Walker Cronkite (for those of you old enough to remember) was virtually unchallenged as the “voice of God” back in the 1950s and 60s. The credibility old-style news anchors enjoyed back then does not seem to have translated into the digital age. Now, users will check several internet or social media sites to verify if what they’re hearing is valid, but have no enduring loyalty to a given news channel. This trend further erodes the influence, power and profitability of traditional media.
Who or what defines “news” now?
Those participating in the panel discussion nevertheless defended traditional news outlets, maintaining there is still a need for someone or something to filter or curate the “real” news. Once upon a time budding journalists needed to go to journalism school, and then gradually earn their stripes as reporters under the watchful eye of various editors and publishers/owners. Now, anyone can create “news” in the sense of a story that gets worldwide attention (witness the recent viral saga of “the dress”). The question: when something goes viral does that necessarily mean it is of significance? Indeed, in an age of social media when virtually anyone can produce “news,” who and what can the average person have faith in for legitimate news?
Another point raised by the panelists is the challenge, particularly faced by traditional news outlets, to include an appropriate level of detail in the news. Whereas in the past traditional television and newspapers could generally count on the fact their audiences had little prior knowledge of the news of the day, today social media may break stories faster than their traditional news counterparts. From a content standpoint, it is more and more challenging for traditional news outlets to tailor their stories to the knowledge level of their audience, and do so in a timely way, making traditional outlets’ job even more difficult.
Traditional news outlets: RIP within five years?
The panel discussion concluded with predictions about whether traditional television news and newspapers would still be around in five years. Consensus was while traditional news outlets might still exist, their role and significance would be reduced: they might possibly shore up their role by adapting to the inclinations of their millennial audience for shorter, menu-driven, and on-demand formats. But the jury was still out on their long-term survival.
How do you see the evolution of news in our society? Is the traditional newspaper or television news format featuring appointment viewing (the 10 p.m. news) with a news anchor delivering a pre-determined line-up of curated stories on the way out? How do you see social media fulfilling the news gathering role?