A terminal case of over-optimism

Print media executives’ future talk brings to mind the story about the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. It is told that Stokowski was 94 when he signed a six-year recording contract with Columbia Records. That was a year before he died. This is one of the best documented cases of terminal over-optimism. One can excuse an old man’s need to express a claim to immortality, but what on earth were the Columbia execs thinking?

Print media executives have many more reasons to toss and turn in bed all night than causes for a good night sleep. After all, their industry’s future looks bleak. The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) invited leading newspapers executives to list current trends that will play a major role in the future of their business, they came up with a list of 66 trends.

Trends that got my attention include the advent of smaller family units and single-parent families. The execs also identified a prevailing sense of lack in time – there is simply not enough time to do the things that need to be done! One can see how these trends might affect newspapers – smaller families with less contact opportunities and less time on hand are likely to find mobile facilities and TV worthy replacements for newspapers.

Other trends identified were “professional customers”, with a clear, thorough, knowledge of competing products, services and pricing. Professional customers distance themselves from mass-marketing theories of yesteryear; they are older and have (much) more money to spend. Lastly – professional customers make shopping decisions at the shops – lending significance to design and overall branding. For newspapers, this means trouble, because professional customers rely on their own resources, rather than on advertisements. Advertising, one should remember, is the life-blood of newspapers.

News and information are available through “intelligent” devices who add sound, colour, movement, immediate access and 24/7 availability. Communication and exchange of information are done mostly through word-of-mouth (I cackled when I noticed that the execs use that tired buzzterm “Viral Marketing”, now Uncle Seth will be soooo-happy!) Readers are “Digital Natives“, who reside naturally within the digital world. Many of them were born into an Internet-aware world. These trends clearly relocated current newspaper readers, placing them away from the corner news kiosk.

The panel shows symptoms of terminal over-optimism with some of the trends discussed, mostly when its members use old marketing clich├ęs, resulting in real stinkers. Here are a few, quoted verbatim: “PR and marketing merging. Editorial content has higher impact than ads, which turns PR into a sales activity.” This is wrong; PR and marketing are dead and gone. The only remaining relevant function is communication, done not to ‘explain’ a brand or support its usage, but to assess ways in which the brand serves the customer (as defined by the customer, not the marketing team!)

“Analytic journalism. Newspapers will offer deeper analysis, opinions and explanations of the news in a larger context to help people navigate in an increasingly complex world.” Nonsense, we see both analytic and reflective journalism online, supported, bolstered and buoyed by street journalism and civic-based reporting. Newspaper cannot possibly compete with online media.

“More media platforms. Newspapers are no longer print only. News is distributed on more and more media platforms (web, podcasts, mobile phones, etc.)” This observation of newspaper reading trends was true circa 2000; our panel delivered a seven year regression analysis… Of course there are more media platforms; they have been increasingly dominant for years. However, the massive communities on FaceBook, YouTube and MySpace, and other social networks, show that the neither content nor audience are fragmented.

Audiences simply relocated and situated themselves, coherently, in a digital universe where people have, in addition to information, hundreds, even thousands, of communication (‘social’) avenues, for free exchange of information. Digital media is Print media on anabolic steroids, a 3D entity where information is referenced painlessly, transactions are easily and readily available at a click of a button, and humans are living, willing-to-interact-and-engage beings.

The panel have also identified the following trends — audience fragmentation (with more channels and more content providers causing audiences to thin-out), online transactions (a new revenue source. As media goes online, transaction revenues for services become an increasingly important revenue stream), and new demands on sales (with selling advertisements becoming increasingly important – and difficult – as there are so many media channels. Sales staff is turning into media brokers.)

Do you believe these guys? It looks like they tracked down their 1999-2000 MBA notes. How else can an astute executive keep a straight face when talking about audience fragmentation as an industry mark for the year 2016?! Where have they been all these years?!

So, are the print media execs rearranging the deckchairs on their Titanic, or is there a way to make sure print media survives? Philip Meyer, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age” says “by my calculations, the last daily reader will disappear in September 2043.”

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