Is traditional media dying?
I offer a qualified no, as it is unquestionably limping along in the traditional form. Yet journalism is not ready for any final nails to be hammered into a casket any more than the music business or portrait photography are completely gone and buried. We can draw parallels between these three industries when it comes to the impact of digital technology as a Pandora’s box.
Peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster made it easy in 1998 to download digital copies of songs without paying any royalties to the artists. Copyrights were ignored as users felt justified essentially stealing songs they’d previously bought on cassette or CD because they saw musicians flaunting gaudy mansions on MTV’s “Cribs”. You could copy songs and make your own mixes before, but MP3 files are virtually indistinguishable from the $16 CDs sold with the price padded for marketing, promotion, artists’ fees, royalties, and some arbitrary markup on what the market would bear.
P2P and Bit Torrent continue to impact the music and film industries as high-speed Internet connections make file sharing possible. People manage to make an ethical distinction between downloading a file without permission and stealing a DVD from a store, yet both are taking something without paying for it.
Another industry taking a body blow due to digital technology is professional photography.
When I started out as a photographer in the early 1990s, I met once a month with a group of old timers who squeezed out a living shooting babies and weddings. We would talk about ways to improve our work so all of us could charge more for it.
Then, in about 1993 or thereabouts, fear crept into that world as the first of the digital SLR cameras came on the scene, costing about $20,000. These guys balked at making such an investment, unaware that the real killer would be the arrival of point-and-shoot cameras that took us largely out of the equation by giving individuals the ability to create decent photos by simply pushing a button. In the years that followed, I saw all of the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The reality now is that digital technology makes “professional” photography somewhat obsolete. Sophisticated cameras use sensors to do all of the thinking, and a halfway decent-looking photograph is as attainable as applying an Instagram filter. That’s a gut-punch to the ego until a photographer realizes that art is not in the camera but the eye of the user, and once I look past all of the dollars I no longer make, I love the fact that so many new people feel a new passion for photography.
Even the old fallback of the photographer, stock photography sales, has gone the way of the dinosaur as finding and stealing a photo to use on a website or in a document without paying for such usage is as easy as typing a keyword into Google Images. Those photographers who do still manage to sell their work as royalty-free stock are forced to accept pennies rather than dollars.
One could argue that Google’s popular search engine has also put the public library on notice as a potentially endangered species, if only because people have become too lazy to actually open a book to research something as opposed to fetching the easy answer delivered right in their browser window.
Which leads us to where we are today, content to read news that Google and a host of other sites/apps have conveniently assembled for us on our smartphones.
We increasingly live in a bubble where we only hear about the topics that specifically interest us while publishing companies must do away with print editions on certain days of the week, the same as the US Postal Service is considering eliminating Saturday deliveries in the wake of e-mail as an alternative to sending a printed letter.
If we knew all of the consequences its arrival would unleash, would we still have developed the Internet in the late 20th Century? We can’t magically click our fingers and restore things to the way they used to be, no more than we can pretend the Manhattan Project didn’t lead us on a path past Imperial Japan and right to the brink of global thermonuclear war.
The common thread in all of these affected groups is the matter of control. The very nature of innovation is finding some way to do a thing cheaper, faster or more efficiently than the old school way for competitive advantage.
Newsrooms are facing cutbacks because the reading public has adopted a preferable way to getting the information they want in ways they want it to fit busy schedules. Looking beyond a specific niche group (journalists, musicians, photographers, etc.), the Internet empowers people in general. It’s just a shame that people don’t do more with having the collective wisdom of the world at their fingertips than spend the majority of their time online watching videos of cute kittens.
We still don’t know what the full impact will be on investigative reporting, although it is arguable that journalism already had one foot in the grave if we slipped from the excellence of Woodward and Bernstein to journalists failing to even dig into Enron’s fraudulent schemes until it was already over.
At least there’s a silver lining in technology giving ordinary people the tools to “cover” things that might have previously gone unreported due to space limitations or editorial gatekeeping. Who knows what can happen if whistleblowers can reach concerned publics directly rather than having to go through the press?
The challenge and the opportunity for the evolving news media will be to establish credibility and distinguish what is truth from what is fiction, the same way I post a link to Snopes.com whenever a Facebook friend shares the same nonsense others have indiscriminately shared as fact. Even at the height of the institution’s glory, the press has occasionally been a tool of propaganda rather than a source of impartial illumination.
I believe journalism will endure in some leaner, meaner form for one key reason: Storytelling is so fundamental to our human experience that I can’t imagine us not having it as part of our daily life. Those who are savvy enough to embrace new platforms will meet society’s thirst for information in some manner.
Journalists and broadcasters will be forced to adapt, the same way that musicians got the rude awakening that they’d need to rely more on touring and merchandising rather than topping the Top 40 charts. The same way photographers realized the people who don’t want to pay a lot of money were never going to hire them to create images for them anyway.
In a way, there’s a redeeming purity to that. You get fewer one-hit wonders when the record industry has less incentive to shovel that dull, commercial stuff to the masses like fertilizer to grow their bank accounts, and those of us who tell stories and curate content will be still do it because we are in it for the love of it. As the saying goes, I may not work at a newspaper anymore, but I’ll always have “ink in my blood.”