Traditional Vs. Social Media: Is It Really Either/Or?

When I was a kid, I saw All the President’s Men and Absence of Malice in the same week (thanks to HBO) and decided then and there I wanted to be a reporter. (Of course, a few weeks later, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and wanted to be a swash-buckling archeologist. But, that’s a different story altogether!)

Watching those movies, I was fascinated by the important role media plays in our daily lives — the way they could right a wrong — the responsibility they have in finding the truth and getting it out there. Today, of course, I’m not a reporter, I crossed to the “dark side” and my job is to persuade reporters to tell the truth I want them to tell. Still part of my success, I think, stems from that early and continued respect for the media.

Ad Age and the Bureau of Labor Statitics just reported a steady decline in traditional media jobs since 2000. Given the increase in the 24-hour news cycle since 2000, one might assume the opposite to be true. However, as I continued to read the stats, I wondered how much new media contributed to this drop in the traditional journalist job market.

So, let’s do a timeline study, shall we? One of the first blogs came from Jorn Barger in 1997 — he’s the man who coined the phrase weblog. He was soon followed by Peter Merholz who shortened it to blog. The next year, Open Diary launched and the first network of blogs entered the scene. By ’99, Brad Fitzpatrick launched Live Journal which had a more user-friendly interface and suddenly blogs were popping up all around us. Pyra Labs launched Blogger.com that same year and the formerly-email subscription Drudge Report went global in an aggregate blog form.

A year later, in 2000, traditional media jobs began falling by the wayside. Now, this is a little like saying, I see the sun when I wake up in the morning, so I must be the cause of its rising. Still, I can’t help but to connect the dots a little bit.

Of course, it’s not just blogs. Webzines also began to rise around the same time. Suddenly, you didn’t need a publishing house and a major investment to start your own magazine. All you needed was an internet connection and compelling content. I recall writing movie reviews for e-zines as early as 1998 and at that time, I began seeking out other reviews of films, music and books from non-traditional channels.

Here’s a question: when is the last time you watched your local news, or even the national nightly news? In the 70s and 80s, my folks watched the local news and then NBC Nightly News every single night. I remember the local news interrupting Happy Days and Mork and Mindy to report on the Atlanta Child Murders, basically scaring the bejesus out of me every day! Now, I can’t tell you the last time I sat down to watch an entire news program on TV. I get nearly all of my news online and I’m not the only one. As I’ve mentioned here before, in 2002, the EVP, Marketing for CNN, Scot Safon gave a speech in which he said college students didn’t even think about CNN as a broadcast channel, they only viewed it as a web site.

Next, consider newspapers. I remember in 1998 when online versions of newspapers were nearly all subscription-based even I said “I still like the tactile feeling of holding the paper, I’ll never read all my news online!” Of course, this was back in the day when you watched the screen for 5 minues as each page downloaded. Today Newspapers are laying off staff left and right because of the efficiency of the web. And, I gotta admit, reading a printed newspaper today is like reading last week’s news.

So, back to the original Ad Age report…where are all these traditional media jobs going? According to the statistics, to marketing and PR. Yep, all those laid-off reporters can now get jobs pitching reporters and/or blogging for Corporate America. According to Ad Age, “marketing consultancies over the past year added 14,500 jobs (up 10.8%) nearly matching staff cuts at major newspapers (down 16,900).”

In other words, while the number of target media we pitch declines, the competition for our jobs grows.

Now, I’m a huge advocate of blogs and ezines and the strength of independent voices. But, the part of me that cheered for Woodward & Bernstein in All the President’s and whose heart sank for Sally Field and Paul Newman in Absence of Malice wonders are we de-valuing the traditional journalist a bit too much here?

I think Neil Henry of the SF Chronicle said it best last May when he wrote: “[this means] Fewer resources will be available to investigate stories as nationally significant as the BALCO scandal; fewer professionals to doggedly uncover shady financial practices at the University of California, forcing top officials to publicly acknowledge their mistakes and work to fix them; fewer journalists to cover local city halls, courts and schools, reporting community news that the public often takes for granted — and which other media, including local television and radio outlets, rely upon to set their own news priorities.”

Fact is, I love new media. (Those of you who attended a recent dinner party at my house and witnessed the great blog debate of 08 know it!) I love the citizen-journalist. I love the immediate ROI found with digital PR. I love the idea of reporters who aren’t tied to a corporation that controls the content.

But, I also love that hard-nosed journalist who digs and digs and uncovers the stories that no one believed in. I also love the tradition of integrity that we all identify with days gone by. It’s an interesting time out there folks; let’s keep the conversation going and the trust in our traditional watchdogs high.

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