Video killed the radio star.
Pictures came and broke your heart.
~Buggles, Video Killed the Radio Star
It turns out the old song was wrong. Video didn't kill the radio star and the internet didn't kill the newspaper industry. It was a failure to embrace new technology, to believe they could continue to do things the old way while the world changed, a steadfast refusal to understand the new ways of doing business.
What happened to the news business was a combination of myopia and intransigence, a complete lack of vision and leadership and buying into to the whole decade of greed, the likes of which we haven't seen since the 80s. What we're witnessing right now is the death of the 20th Century newspaper business model. Sadly, the news business got perverted into a 21st century profit-driven cesspool that lost sight of its primary mission: news reporting.
In the Days of My Youth
When I was coming of age in the 1970s, the newspaper business was at the peak of its power. Investigative journalists were folk heroes. Woodward and Bernstein brought down a powerful president with good reporting. The Washington Post was almost literally a fourth estate and Publisher Katherine Graham and Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee were willing to put their newspaper business on the line to print the truth. They understood that the reporting the news was Job One. Just a decade later that would all be gone, but for a few moments those of us old enough to remember, know of a time when the newspaper business was all about the news.
In a Journalism class I took at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst around 1980, we discussed the growing consolidation of newspapers into fewer and fewer owners. My professor recognized the danger of this trend and imparted it on his students. Almost 30 years later as I watch the demise of the US newspaper industry, that lesson still sticks firmly in my craw, even as so many other facts I've learned slip away because it was this trend that represented the beginning of the end of newspapers, long before many of us ever heard or the internet or used our first PC.
Even as newspapers began to consolidate and the big chains grew ever larger, the great newspaper families sold their shares and retired in luxury, while the institutions built with their father's and grandfathers' blood and sweat slowly deteriorated. Suddenly the news wasn't the primary focus. Answering to shareholders became paramount and that ultimately killed the news business. Of course, in the midst of all this came the internet and the world wide web and newspapers continued to do business the old way or simply tried to move the model on line, never really understanding that it worked altogether differently on the web.
As my old pal Melinda Moses , who is Principal, MSM Strategic Marketing / Partner Dynamics, put it the other day in an email to me:
You know and I know that "they" who still follow the old rules of marketing demand some skin before they can part with anything of value. That's the difference between old and new, right. Transparency. Seriously -- it's so interesting to think about the paradigm shift (haha. had to say that) and see how true it is that the old wants to sell/gather, and the new wants to share/add value.
News (and media companies in general) have for the most part fallen firmly in the former camp. They failed to understand that old ways of doing business simply don't work on the web until is was way too late.
So here we are in 2009 and as I watch the country's newspapers slip from being to nothingness, I have more than a tinge of sadness. I'm a writer today in large part because of those men and women back in the 70s, particularly Woodward and Bernstein, who inspired me as a teen and made me want to be like them. And as I watch the news business collapse, I wonder who is inspiring my children?