So many of the fundamental media bedrocks appear to be crumbling, while what’s rising up sometimes feels alien. Then there are other countervailing trends, which seem to fight the idea that everything is changing. So how do you think about all of this? How do you synthesize what you know from firsthand experience and impart that without sounding like Gutenberg bemoaning paperbacks? Here are a few suggestions.
Making Sense Of Media Disruption
As a news executive, I was on the front lines of media disruption for decades but dealing with that disruption had to share brain space with the daily tasks of overseeing news that gushed like water from a fire hose, and the people who had to be managed and the budgets that had to be attended to.
But now I’m in academia, and as I walk along a path at Montclair State University that winds around construction of a new School of Communication and Media building that we’ll soon be moving into, one with state-of-the-art-everything, I wonder both how I’ll help my students make sense of the media world they’ll be joining, as well as what I want to say to former colleagues about how to think about the constant change.
So many of the fundamental media bedrocks appear to be crumbling, while what’s rising up sometimes feels alien. Consider these examples from just the past few weeks:
- The Olympics no longer guarantee astronomical TV ratings.
- Wherever you go on campus, you see clumps of students engaged with their smartphones. They’re not listening to music or podcasts, or watching CNN, but seeking Pikachu and friends on Pokémon Go.
- Trump continues to offhandedly refer to “the failed New York Times” and few, including the Times, seem to notice or get too exorcised. That’s because it’s a fact that even smart, change-embracing institutions like the Times are shedding journalists and losing revenue.
- Cord cutting continues; OTT is on the rise.
- News organizations hold their breaths every time Facebook tweaks its algorithm.
- Huffington Post, once the independent, trendsetting golden child of digital journalism now owned by Verizon, is already considered yesterday’s model by many, and its namesake editor, Arianna Huffington, is leaving.
- It’s harder than ever to make a hit or establish a new franchise. Ask Larry Wilmore, who had Jon Stewart’s imprimatur.
Then there are other countervailing trends, which seem to fight the idea that everything is changing:
- Network evening newscasts are having their best year in years, driven no doubt by interest in the presidential election.
- Media darling Vice thinks enough of the half hour nightly newscast format that it’s starting its own, on HBO.
- The Drudge Report — minimal graphics, links to everywhere — is starting its third decade, and posting record numbers.
- After treating the Republican primaries and debates more like a WWE pay-per-view spectacle than a serious exploration of the candidates and their issues, our nation’s news media are subjecting both candidates to a stricter examination under the microscope; free media cuts both ways.
- When I watch the cable news nets for election coverage, I see a cadre of youngish, smart, multimedia journalists who are equally adept at reporting, analysis, tweeting, shooting, and Instagramming.
The other day, as my smartphone spit out story after story about media, I found myself involuntarily humming a Billy Joel song I hadn’t thought about in decades, Keeping the Faith: “Cause the good ole days weren’t always good/And tomorrow’s ain’t as bad as it seems.”
So how do you think about all of this? How do you synthesize what you know from firsthand experience and impart that to your employees or students without sounding like Gutenberg bemoaning paperbacks?
Here’s what I’ve come up with to guide me through my classes and to help news directors and executive producers riding the monster waves of change in their own newsrooms:
- Don’t pretend you know everything or know where media is going.
- Don’t be stuck in what was.
- On the other hand, don’t automatically reject what was. The media world we grew up in still has lessons for success, especially around broad themes like ethics, collaboration, and storytelling.
- Be part of the journey. Younger people are more native in utilizing social media. Learn from them, and combine their knowledge with yours.
- Be optimistic. Yes, the license-to-print-money era of broadcast is in the rearview mirror, but ahead of us is an exciting brew of storytelling and fact digging. Embrace it.
The most important lesson is not being afraid to venture into the unknown. Earlier this year, while I was teaching a course on journalism, I decided to experiment with Periscope.
I had each member of the class “broadcast” my lecture and class discussion on the future of journalism. Within 10 minutes we had an international audience, from Kazakhstan to Denmark to Texas joining in, and what would have been a perfectly conventional classroom experience became a high-wire act in freedom of expression, some lewd comments to be sure, but overall a learning experience for all of us.
Mark Effron, a veteran media executive, teaches at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and is helping coordinate the launch of a multiplatform newsroom in the university’s new School of Communication and Media headquarters, which is nearing completion.