I ran into craigslist founder Craig Newmark Wednesday night at a book party for my colleague Stephen Baker.
I asked Newmark what he thought about the state of the mass media. Newmark is a great person to ask this question since craigslist was an early disruptor of the newspaper business. His answer reinforced my growing belief that 2009 could be a watershed year for mass media, a sort of reckoning.
Why? The Great Recession will likely force more companies to finally restructure their businesses for the digital age, instead of making more of the modest, incremental changes they’ve been dribbing out for the most part over the last 10 years.
“The recession will accelerate the problems of the mass media,” said Newmark. “There are going to be some hard choices that need to be made.”
Newmark didn’t elaborate on those choices but it’s not too hard to see the options. Michael Hirschorn (who edited SPIN when it was worth reading back in the 90s) addressed this issue head-on in an interesting essay in The Atlantic about the growing problems of the New York Times.
Among the hard choices that will probably be made by more mainstream media outlets such as newspapers and magazines:
1. Digital-focused distribution. In March of 2007, IDG publication InfoWorld led the way by abandoning print distribution. Last October, the Christian Science Monitor announced it was going to become the first nationally circulated newspaper to replace its daily print edition with its Web site. The paper isn’t totally abandoning print, though. It will publish a weekly print edition. Expect more papers and mags to go digital.
2. More aggregation. The open nature of the Web has undermined the value of original reporting to a certain extent since readers can access much of that content for free across multiple places. As a result, more media outlets will retreat from areas they don’t consider essential. Intead of original reporting, editors will filter the Web and serve up the most relevant links, much like the Huffington Post does, or many other blogs.
3. More journalistic outsourcing: To make up for the inevitable staff cuts that are coming, more media companies will outsource reporting to blogs and other new media companies. The New York Times recently announced syndication deals with several blogs, including VentureBeat, Read/Write Web and the GigaOm network. The popular politics blog Politico is delivering content to many newspapers now, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Denver Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Of all the changes, this is probably the most hopeful since it will lead to more investment in new media journalism. This will be crucial since the decline of the mainstream media–at least in the short term–will damage the press’s ability to serve as a foundation of democracy.