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The media, an industry in crisis?

16 December 2019

Once upon a time, owning a newspaper was a sure-fire way to make a fortune.

In the days before the internet, people wanting to buy or sell products or services had little option but to advertise in the newspaper -- either by way of expensive display ads or the cheaper classified section.

The lucrative revenues squeezed from advertisers funded the small army of reporters, writers and editors who created the content that attracted the public to pay a few coins every day to buy the papers.

Likewise, if you wanted to listen to music and news whilst on the move or at work, radio stations were just about the only option. Music attracted listeners but ads paid the bills.

Then there was television. Shortly after its introduction, TV became the opiate of the masses and pretty quickly advertisers realised that if they wanted to reach the great unwashed masses, they'd have to pay big money for a commercial that would screen during highly rated programmes.

These were they heydays of the popular media, an era when the only time you could reach an audience of prospective customers was to hitch a ride with popular news, or entertainment content being broadcast or published by that media.

Oh, how times have changed... but sadly, the media hasn't changed with them.

Today, the number of people (especially young people) watching broadcast TV is lower than it has been for more than half a century.

Likewise, radio has largly been replaced by streaming services such as Spotify and on-demand services such as podcasts.

Fewer and fewer people are bothering with newspapers as "a thing" these days, prefering to get their view of the world from online sources -- with a growing drift away from established news sources to social media.

But the biggest killer of traditional print-media has been online auction and trading sites such as eBay and (in NZ) TradeMe.

The thousands of classified advertisements that were the life-blood of every daily newspaper have all but gone. Instead, people simply list their stuff online and instead of paying for the privilege of appearing in print (whether the advertised items sold or not), now often only pay a success fee.

The dramatic change in consumer and advertiser habits has effectively destroyed the mainstream media's age-old business model and left most broadcasters and publishers struggling in a sea of uncertainty.

Here in New Zealand, things are no different.

Some newspaper sites such as the NZH, the NBR and others have opted to erect paywalls around their content, on the assumption that people will pay good money to get their news.

Is that working?

I don't know. The NZH is still in business, as is NBR -- but are they profitable enough to remain in business during the years to come?

Interestingly enough, Stuff has mooted erecting its own paywall but that's unlikely to happen until its existing owners manage to sell it (if they can). The one thing Stuff has going for it right now is that it is almost certainly getting a whole lot more traffic than the NZH and every business needs its point of distinction.

Meanwhile, in the broadcasting area, there's talk of Mediaworks shutting down its TV channels if it's unable to find a buyer for them. The chances of a sale look pretty slim right now -- who's going to buy a business that is losing money in a sunset-industry?

TVNZ and RadioNZ are of course "special cases" due to their ownership by the taxpayer. State-funded broadcasting has been long preserved as being essential in this country (and many others) so we're almost certainly going to make sure they survive, at least in the short to medium term. There has however, been quite a bit of discussion about the form and structure that public broadcasting should take in the years ahead, with suggestions that the two be merged into a single entity.

Perhaps the only winners in the media landscape are the newer entrants that deliver streaming services and social media platforms.

Netflix is taking over from SkyTV, Spotify usurping commercial radio and Facebook has carved its own niche.

How can mainstream media survive?

Well sadly we're seeing massive signs of desperation.

Increasingly we're seeing respected names in the news industry turning to click-bait headlines, fake news, sub-standard reporting and editing as well as hosting dubious ads for dubious products and services. It seems that in the quest for survival, nothing is unacceptable any more.

The sad thing is that this abandonment of standards, ethics and principles simply hastens the rate at which people leave "old media" in favour of "new media" -- perhaps with the exception of The Daily Mail. Yes, the DM has become one of the world's most popular "news" websites, perhaps because it focuses exclusively on taboid trash so at least people know that virtually everything they read their is crap. No need to try and sort the wheat from the chaff there.

As consumers of media content, we need to be very careful, cautious and skeptical.

Along with the "fake news" that now masquerades as researched, factual news reporting, we're also seeing astonishing levels of bias and manipulation being applied to the stuff we read, watch and listen.

Even user-generated content, such as that found on YouTube, is now being massaged by the corporations that run such services. In the case of YouTube we've seen some attrocious distortions introduced by policies that prioritise "politically favoured" content over material that is not supported by Google. Anyone who believes that YouTube is a level playing field where everyone gets the same exposure or opportunity to put their position is being very naive.

He who controls the media controls the minds of the people -- or so it is said.

Should we be afraid?

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