Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Survey of the Changes in the Media, from a Key Insider

Here's a set of numbers that encapsulate the historic changes in the mass media we've been experiencing for the past couple of decades: As recently as the year 2000, advertising in U.S. newspapers amounted to more than $63 billion. By last year it had fallen to $23 billion. And last year the ad revenue of a single company, Google, amounted to more than $50 billion - more than twice as much as that of all U.S. newspapers combined.

What happened to the print media, and what it means for our society at large, is the subject of an insightful new Brookings Institution essay by Robert Kaiser, veteran reporter and until recently senior editor for the Washington Post. This may be familiar territory to anyone interested in mass communication, but it's fascinating to get the perspective of a major Washington journalist who's been at the center of most of the great changes. Even his alma mater, the newspaper that took on a president with its Watergate coverage, is now owned by the founder of Amazon.

Kaiser surveys the rapid transition from a world of a few relatively objective national networks and publications, with the resources to conduct groundbreaking investigative journalism, to our current environment of countless cable channels, internet sites and other news outlets that mostly serve up the superficial facts and interpretation that their audience wants: "The news media are fragmenting just as American society is fragmenting - by class, by region, by religious inclination, by generation, by ethnic identity, by politics and more."

Much of his analysis is simple nostalgia, for the time when he began his career, when major publications had a string of foreign bureaus and reporters flew first class. But he thoughtfully reviews major mistakes made by newspapers that contributed to their downfall and the impact that the media evolution is having on the country. For example, "there's no paper in the country that can offer the same coverage if its city, suburbs, and state that it provided 20 or even 10 years ago, and scores of city halls and state legislatures get virtually no coverage by any substantive news organizations." The public, he believes, is simply not being served as well as it used to be.

He tries to end on a hopeful note, but it seems half-hearted. He clearly represents the ink-in-his-veins journalist of the old school. We have to hope that there are still young journalists with pixels in their veins who will work to keep up some of the standards and instincts that Kaiser pines for.

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