Editorial: For Media Business, No Future Without Risk

If the old model doesn't work and the new model is a work in progress, it will take some risk to gain a reward. And the clock is ticking.

“In local television, news staffs, already too small to adequately cover their communities, are being cut at unprecedented rates....In network news, even the rare programs increasing their ratings are seeing revenues fall....Only cable news really flourished in 2008, thanks to an Ahab-like focus on the election, although some of the ratings gains were erased after the election.”

Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

The ad-supported model for journalism is in danger if you believe the Project for Excellence in Journalism's latest report on the state of the industry (see related article, "Pew Research Center Report: More Troubling Signs for Broadcast Networks")—from which the above was taken—a report that paints a bleak, though not hopeless, picture.

Stop the presses! (Oops, too late for many.) PEJ finds that audience migration to the Web has accelerated, compounded by the media's financial problems. Unfortunately, the ad rate per view fell by half, given that there is so much space available.

“If anyone had any doubts before, it is clearer now that conventional advertising will not be enough to support journalism online,” says PEJ, which is not what journalism companies even now planning their print-exit strategies want to hear.

But that does not mean there is no online strategy. It has to be creative and, to use an overused term, “multiplatform.”

And here is where media companies face a tough call. What is needed in the media business is creative, innovative thinking. If the old model doesn't work and the new model is a work in progress, it will take some risk to gain a reward. And the clock is ticking.

That is hard to dispute, but even harder to execute as companies watch their businesses tank. Asking them to open, rather than batten down, the hatches to spend or innovate or take a chance is fine in theory. But folks clinging to ledges with white knuckles are not the easiest to convince they need to let go with one hand to grab onto an unsure thing, even if it may mean their survival.

But letting go of old-think is just what media companies—make that most companies—will have to do. Past performance was never a great indicator of future returns, as the now melted-down financial markets always pointed out under duress. Now it is all but irrelevant.

Media companies have suffered the double whammy of already facing a sea change in their business when the perfect economic storm hit. What's an industry to do? Economize where it must, invest when it can, and recognize that a million bloggers shedding some light on events—one wag suggests it is often a dorm-room black light—may add to the journalistic conversation, but they do not add up to the trained spotlight of journalistic talent and experience.