Darryl Wolk

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"Fake News" and the future of the Mainstream Media

Posted by Darryl Wolk on January 15, 2017 at 3:10 PM

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June 1, 1980 CNN launched their 24 hour cable news network.  Just over a year later MTV launched.  It resulted in major change for both the news and music industry at the time. In music video killed the radio star. In news, we began to see a change in how people get informed about the world around them. Network television and the trusted news anchor was threatened as people tuned into to CNN around the clock, not just during the evening news cast. Newspapers at the time realized they could not compete for breaking news, but placed their focus on investigative reporting, covering stories in-depth and providing expert commentary.

It is hard to imagine life today without the internet. I remember logging on in 1995 for the first time and there was not much to do. A few companies and news organizations had websites. ICQ and MSN messenger allowed us to keep in touch with our friends. Blogging on a variety of topics including politics, sports, travel and healthy living started to gain in popularity. In 2004, Facebook was launched and ten years ago Twitter was launched. At the turn of the century, even the internet changed as all companies were expected to have an online presence, users across all demographics connected online and smart phones gave us the opportunity to be online all the time. Today 40% of Canadians get their news online, 68% for those under 35.

When I was in first year University, Napster and MP3 technology was just taking off. Rather than adapt early to the technology, they resisted it. Music listeners faced fear of being fined, downloading a virus and were constantly told that quality was less than a CD version of the same music.  Consumers were expected to purchase full albums and in many cases, people would pay $20 for 1 quality song out of 10. As people stole music, the recording industry saw it as losing sales in every circumstance. Few saw the value in discovering new bands, old music or genres of music that they would have otherwise not been aware of. As technology changed, the industry reacted to it in very different ways. Some bands embraced YouTube to get exposure and placed their focus on touring revenue. Major record labels and record stores resisted technology and refused to change. Stores like Sam the Record Man went under, others like HMV reduced their focus on CDs and got into video games and DVDs. Record labels stopped investing in marketing of their stars and as a result provided limited value to their clients. As the trend towards illegal downloading slowed, Apple jumped on the technology offering a legal way to download music through iTunes and various MP3 players. While companies like HMV struggle to survive, Apple has made explosive profits and now has one of the most expensive stock prices on the market.

I see the current news industry in the same boat as the recording industry when Napster first came onto the scene. Most newspapers around the world are bleeding red ink. Technology has eaten their lunch. Why would anyone place a job ad in the local newspaper when you can use Workopolis, LinkedIn, Indeed or Monster? Why would anyone place a classified ad when Kijiji and Ebay offer cheaper alternatives with more exposure? Why would anyone place an expensive print ad when a Facebook ad better targets demographics, location and personalized interests? Are there still people who clip coupons instead of using apps? Does it make sense to go through the car or homes section in a newspaper when a person can do far better research online in real time? Despite these changes in technology, many newspapers do not want to change. They argue only their news is credible and the government should increase print advertising to keep them a float. Bloggers and online sources are portrayed as inaccurate, biased and "fake news" by the mainstream media who see it as a threat. The problem is that the quality of mainstream news is declining because of their financial situation. Many local news sites such as York Region News Group are becoming more centralized. Local content is being reduced and replaced with generic Associated Press stories and feeds from larger newspapers such as the Toronto Star. Experienced and talented investigative journalists are being packaged out and replaced with reporters fresh out of journalism school barely making minimum wage. By the time news is printed in the daily or weekly newspaper, it is already old news. While some editors, pundits and columnists believe they have a monopoly on informed opinion and intelligent analysis, the reality is much different. Anyone today can have a blog or social media account to get their opinions out. While there is a lot of fake news, uninformed opinions and junk online, there is also better quality analysis than traditional mainstream columnists, editorials and pundits offer too. The trouble for readers is to differentiate what is good and what isn't among the overload of options online. Trends show that newspaper and cable subscriptions are declining. Late to the game, some are experimenting with online and mobile subscription versions. Others seem willing to go down with the ship.

I am not sure what the media landscape is going to look like in five years, but I do know it will be much different than today. Economics will almost surely force printed newspapers and magazines to go exclusively online.  Their revenue is falling along with their market share for advertising dollars. The cost of labour, printing and delivery will continue to increase. As they seek out savings, quality will reduce. Already newspapers are seeing reduced editions and less content. Journalism students probably already realize they can make more money working a communications job in the public or private sector rather than grinding it out and living in poverty slugging away for the local newspaper. As turnover and retirement packages increase, knowledge will be lost and quality will further decline. Do you trust a blogger who has covered a local Council for years and knows all the players, history and background due to a passion for their hobby or do you trust a young reporter fresh out of school with no experience or knowledge about what they are covering? Can a newspaper hold a government accountable when they are desperate for government handouts to survive another day? Do people want to read outdated news or news in real time? Do we need the news media to report on what a politician tweets or do we just follow the account ourselves? I enjoy logging into my Twitter or Facebook account and seeing breaking news in real time.  90% of the news I get is online and there will never be a time when I turn the clock backwards, ignore technology and return to evening news broadcasts or reading a newspaper in print. The news agencies who will survive the next five years will be the organizations who take the Apple iTunes approach and adapt to technology. Those that will fail will resist technology and adapt too late.  The biggest question consumers will have to ask themselves is if we value quality news and opinion. Are we willing to pay for it? We often think of news as a public service. In reality it is a business that cannot survive without being profitable. Some thought Napster would kill the music industry, but iTunes adapted and Taylor Swift is still making good money. Instead of complaining about Twitter, Facebook, Google, Blogging and the internet; the mainstream news media must find a way to make money adapting to technology and consumer preferences. Their long term survival depends on it.

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