Who’s Going to Foot Journalism’s Bills?

| 3/25/2008 5:49:01 PM

Tags: bob garfield, on the media, advertising age, future of media, future of advertising, future of journalism, journalism funding,

NewspapersNormally, I don’t spend much time fretting over the plight of marketers. These are the creative types that irked me with their solid post-graduation plans and now rake in the dough by seducing me into wanting things my bank account can’t afford (thus sowing a nagging suspicion that I should have gone into a more lucrative field like, say, marketing). So when I went last night to hear Bob Garfield, the host of NPR’s On the Media and a columnist for Advertising Age, talk about “The Future of Media,” I was a bit disappointed to learn that he’d really be talking about  “The Future of Advertising.” Since advertising pays the bills, though, I decided I’d better stay put and listen.

Madison Avenue, it seems, is in danger of becoming Skid Row. We can thank the Internet for that. Advertisers are recoiling from the printed page, abandoning the 30-second televised spot, and scrambling to recreate these bygone paradigms in the digital world. But there’s no going back. Craigslist has siphoned the classifieds section money stream, the few people who click on banner ads probably do so by accident, and blocking pop-ups is a much-appreciated default setting. As for commercials? “Online video has killed the video star,” says Garfield. That, and TiVo. Why sit through silly spots when you can blip blip blip your way through commercials, catch programs online, or, better yet, make your own entertainment for all the World Wide Web to see?

So far, the marketing biz hasn’t found its footing in this brave new world, says Garfield. But, he assures, there is money to be made because people love consuming and crave information about their consumables. That’s why smart companies are abandoning the conceit of the captive audience and are instead pouring money into the IT infrastructure that will drive search optimization, aggregate consumer data, and build “relationships” with consumers. Don’t bother with a scripted ad, the logic goes, just build a really good website and let the buyers come to you. Or devise super clever ways to entice consumers. To drive this point home Garfield showed a slide of a handy new technology out of Canada that essentially functions like a marketers’ version of VH1’s Pop-Up Video, though instead of snarky observations you get brand names, company links, and sales info when you mouse over the people and objects in the video.

That’s when my heart sank, because the solutions for marketing in this new media world seem apocalyptic when applied to journalism. Product placement has long since infiltrated and cheapened entertainment, but it would kneecap good reporting. And if marketers don’t have to rely on advertising anymore, what does the news business do for funding?

When I asked Garfield what happens to good journalism in this new media landscape, he talked about some hopeful developments. First, there’s the symbiotic relationship forming between mainstream news outlets and the blogosphere, whereby newspapers churn out the daily news and the blogosphere aggregates it, points out the holes, and contextualizes what’s going on for readers. Second, there's the opportunity to involve readers, either through the crowdsourcing that’s proved a gold mine for document dumps or by tapping readers not only for input on their interests but as citizen journalists.

There are pitfalls and potential in both these realms, and I’m excited to see how they hash out, but neither speak to the question of funding; they address only the new possibilities afforded by online technology. The problem remains: Who’s going to pay for it? Some, like Garfield did last night, raise the specter of minimal charges, a la pay-per-view. “Why bother shoplifting from the dollar store?” he asked. I’m skeptical that such charging schemes will work: the New York Times already abandoned its premium content scheme, and the internet has reared folks to expect free content—weaning them of that now is nigh impossible. There are others that say journalism should turn to foundation funding. And there are those that argue that government may have to step in. If you’ve got any ideas, let us know. We might need them.

4/3/2008 8:08:32 AM

Thanks for the great article. I'm doing a graduate degree in Marketing right now in Oxford, England and I'm doing a case study on Utne about this very issue! I think I might cite your article in my paper! You rock as always Hannah. Best, Kiran

3/31/2008 11:31:38 PM

veeeeerrreeeee interesting... Gordon, dig your competition - cooperation view

3/31/2008 1:42:29 PM

Perhaps we might look forward to a time when the world is driven, not by the quest for profit (competition), but by the valuation of sharing (cooperation). Of course, that would mean that media execs would have to give up their Hummers and McMansions. What's that poem...about raging against the dying of the light? Well, I guess he didn't mean the light of the 52 inch plasma TV screen.

3/31/2008 11:29:13 AM

Nice examination of the issues. Unfortunately, Garfield's optimism must be tempered by the fact that the traditionally enormous resources of daily newspapers that all other media (blogs to magazines) must ultimately admit they feed off is going to disappear, and sooner than anyone may be prepared for (see last week's New Yorker feature on this). Once the newspapers go, what are we willing to sacrifice to have anything resembling daily journalism in the future? Interesting, too, that nearly 15 years ago, when I attended a national advertising conference, discussion centered on how advertisers hadn't yet found their footing in the new Internet landscape; still haven't, it seems. http://www.mnmo.com

bryan welch_3
3/26/2008 9:25:51 AM

It might be interesting to hear how you think these issues are affecting our own magazine. - Bryan

3/25/2008 10:55:30 PM

The technology out of Canada really caught my eye while reading this post. I really enjoyed VH1's Pop-Up Videos... reading about all the facts about the artist and the making of the video. I can't imagine how much money brands could make by using this technique to advertise their products. This would really provide a great way to reach the specific audience that marketers are aiming toward. From the marketing perspective, this seems like a great idea. From my own perspective as a consumer however, I think that I would get annoyed with this really fast. Product placement is starting to get a bit out of hand in our mainstream media. Anyway, I write a blog of my own about product placement..if you're interested you can check it out here: http://smberger.blogspot.com/. Keep up the great work.. http://smberger.blogspot.com/