Friday, January 16, 2009

Radio silence on media crisis

Question: what’s the one part of the economic crisis that’s not getting covered in the media? Answer: the crisis in the media itself.

Canwest’s announcement this week that it lost $33M in its first quarter is only the rather large tip of the iceberg. A Canwest executive even admitted the company could walk away from the E! television network that serves eight Canadian cities. Along with Canwest, Torstar, Quebecor (Sun newspaper chain) and CTVglobemedia have cut a total of about 1,300 jobs in the past three months.

Each announcement is reported in the middle section of the business pages with no elaboration on what the cuts mean, why they are necessary and what’s being lost. Over the years, reporters have told us that they are discouraged from telling the story because of the fear of butting up against the corporate interests of their bosses. What we get is the boring stuff: the quarterly loss, the revenues, the share price.

What’s not being told is that a perfect storm is battering virtually every North American media company. And bigger is not really better. Many that went on acquisition frenzies over the past decade (see Canwest, Tribune Co.) are so mired in debt they can’t deal with either the recession or the declining ad market for traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers). No one knows when and if they’ll ever be able to “monetize” the internet to make up for the massive losses in their bread-and-butter advertising.

South of the border, Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in early December. Gannett, which owns USA Today and 85 other newspapers in the United States, has announced that it is forcing thousands of employees to take an unpaid week off this quarter. Detroit’s two newspapers announced they’re going to cut home delivery to only three days a week.

The only glimmer of hope on the horizon is the few people on both sides of the border who are starting to think about ways out. About 150 media union members met last weekend in Baltimore to discuss the collapsing industry. We heard from academics and analysts about why it’s happening and new ways to change the business model and finance public information.

Chris Benner, of the University of California at Davis, mentioned:
- non-profit organizations taking ownership of parts of the media -- such as the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times
- public paying directly for content – such as Spot Us, where the public can pay for the stories they want to see done
- the public can also pay to get documentaries done at Reel Changes

There are also programs that provide tax incentives for no-profit and low-profit companies with socially-beneficial mandates and there are models floating around in Canada, one of them championed by none other than Paul Martin. One expert, Robert Lang [link fixed] believes such programs could be used to finance news and information organizations.

These things alone aren’t enough (a well-funded public broadcaster is still a cornerstone of a healthy media environment) but the fact that people are thinking about separating the commercial interests from the information is a good thing.

The first step in this country is to properly acknowledge the problem and to understand that it is in everyone’s interest to make sure that quality newsgathering and reporting can continue.

Please share your thoughts on what needs to be done.

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