Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is the Media Dying?

In 2009 I wrote a blog entry assessing the declining health of the publishing industry, specifically magazines and newspapers. It's something writers are concerned about, especially if there are shrinking markets and venues where one can present their ideas and their work.

I had just spent a week at a media conference in L.A. designed to bring together companies in the performance aftermarket with editors in the media. The meetings give companies an opportunity to tell their stories, show what's new and forge relationships with editors and writers for publications.

As an advertising and PR professional, as well as long time writer, I try to keep a firm grip on the pulse of the publishing industry. Since Gutenberg, the written word has probably been the most influential force in history. Communists relied deliberately and heavily on the written word to make in-roads in Latin America. Christianity's Reformation movement similarly relied on the written word, and for this reason literacy became a major concern in Western culture.

Despite the pervasiveness of television and radio, magazines have remained strong as a valued resource for both information and diversion. But there are challenges for the magazines now. The cost of distribution is increasingly hefty, as well as the rising printing costs for staff, paper and ink.

The recession of 2008 damaged not only the auto industry, but every American manufacturing industry, especially those dependent on discretionary income. In the magazine scene, the numbers showed that periodicals with subscribers didn't get too shaken, but those dependent on point-of-purchase sales (in grocery stores and Wal-Mart shelves) took a deep hit. Despite what we're seeing in the stock market, many of these industries have yet to fully recover.

Editors today face many challenges, not least of which is the need to produce the same high quality content with reduced staff. Furthermore, the content has to be as such that it is less timely and more useful. Less timely because breaking news is already old news by the time it is in print. Most readers now tap Google News or favorite mashup sites to follow these more urgent topics. In short, magazine editorial must be deeper and compelling for reasons other than timeliness.

Of course, without readers you won't attract advertisers. And without advertisers you can't pay salaries, so then it is still more work for the last staff member standing, and the quality must not suffer.

Are there any bright spots in this story?

Yes. First, despite the hardships people feel, the strong companies survive as do the strong magazine brands. The key is value. Does the magazine bring something of value to the reader? The New Yorker is practically indispensable for its coverage of the New York arts scene. Hot Rod has such a depth of history that it could mine its archives for a decade and never run dry.

And as we all know, predicting the future is one of those things that later makes fools of a lot of people. Decca Records rejected signing the Beatles in 1962 because in-house experts predicted, "Guitars are on the way out." Hoo boy. In 1876 an internal memo at Western Union declared, "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." And Dr. Lee De Forest, inventor of the vacuum tube and father of television, said man would never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.

In short, any prediction about the death of magazine publishing is suspect in my book. Even a smart cat like Michael Crichton made a goof when in the 1990's he predicted the death of the television industry in ten years due to the Internet. Crichton has passed away, but television seems stronger than ever as Hollywood movie stars have begun a slow migration to the Tube away from the silver screen.

A tip for young writers here: polish your skills. Learn your grammar, punctuation and spelling, and there will be a place for you if you apply yourself. You don't have to be famous to make a good living. As long as there is an economy, even if struggling, there will be a need for writers to tell the stories that need to be told.

The media is undergoing changes for sure. If you Twitter, and you wish to follow the shakedown of the publishing scene, be sure to follow @TheMediaIsDying, who has a firm hand on the pulse of this market sector. (You can also follow me on Twitter as well: @ennyman3)

What's your take on the future of publishing? Will books and magazines go away? Will television media remain strong or get pulled under by the advance of internet technology? Whatcha think?

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