You may have noticed your subscriber base dropping off over the last fifteen years or so. In fact, you’ve probably noticed this trend since the 1980’s, or at least the early 1990’s, but it has certainly accelerated during the last fifteen years or so, since the availability of news content on the Internet first became available. You have no doubt also noted the rise of “citizen journalists,” and you have probably scoffed at them, given the level of hubris ever present in your industry. Now that your readership has floundered, you are probably blaming the combination of these citizen journalists with their sharp-edged blogs and the unsophisticated public for the decline in your readership. One of your former editors said as much in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.
In fact, that writer blamed a drive in the traditional print publications to appear more like the blogs and news websites with flashy stories, rather than provide the traditional fare of carefully checked and balanced stories, for the recent article in Rolling Stone. In that article an account of a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house was described, resulting in a suspension of all Greek life on campus , only to have the story unravel, forcing the magazine to print a retraction. In the op-ed, a need to get stories out fast that have “rough edges” was blamed for the printing of the story despite the fact that none of the individuals being accused of the rape or any representatives from the fraternity were ever interviewed.
I’ve also heard other excuses for the drop in readership, generally blaming the public. People just aren’t reading anymore. People want all of their news online, so no one picks up a magazine or a newspaper. People don’t have a long enough attention span anymore to read a full article; they just want sound bites. People don’t follow current events anymore.
I believe the issue is far more fundamental, and that it started well before internet news and blogs. The issue is that you no longer produce a product that is of value to anyone.
The product you produce is information, and its value comes from the need for people to understand what’s going on around them in order to make good decisions. People can’t travel to Iraq and see the reaction of the Iraqi populus to the arrival of American troops, so we need reporters from Newsweek there to give us an accurate picture. We don’t have time to figure out the impact that the new EPA regulations will have on our power bills and even the availability of energy at all, so we need reporters from Time to talk to the experts on American energy production and accurately relay what they find. Few people were in Ferguson, Missouri on the night that Michael Brown was shot, so we need US News to give all of the details as they emerge with proper fact checking. The public can’t go into the White House and attend the President’s press briefings, so we need reporters from The New York Times there to ask tough questions and press for answers.
Your industry has fallen down miserably in your responsibility to gather and disseminate this information. For too long you have allowed your political biases to direct your choice of what words you use, which information makes it into the first few paragraphs of your stories, and even which information makes it into your stories at all. You state scientific hypotheses as facts as if you were stating that grass is green or the sky is blue, rather than stating them as unproven theories. You have gone from being providers of the news and protectors of the public to being spin doctors and propagandists.
You have been losing readership all along as people have detected this level of bias in your stories. The decline has only accelerated with the development of the internet, which has provided more people access to much of the information you have been hiding, making them realize the level of slant in your articles. Why should they buy your publication and its distorted information when they can get a more complete picture from blogs and important documents themselves on the internet?
It doesn’t matter if your content is in print, online, or tattooed to your foreheads. People only trade the money earned through their labor for things that are worth the value of that labor. Articles filled with half-truths, half of the information, and blatant propaganda are not worth the trade. If you want to revitalize your industry and regain your readership, you need to go back to what your founders sought to protect – the right of the people to get truthful, accurate, and unbiased information. If your organizations do not possess that level of integrity, your products are utterly worthless, and I say, “Good riddance.”
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