I was sad to hear that Walter Cronkite, the iconic CBS anchorman, who for decades brought us the news and told us the stories of our time passed away on Friday, July 17th. It got me thinking about how the world of journalism has evolved. When Cronkite took his anchor role in 1962 and introduced a thrity minute broadcast done directly from the news room, he changed the way we digested daily news and framed moments, such as JFK's assassination and man's first steps on the moon, with real-time commentary.
Now, think about how much Cronkite had seen in his 92 years and then think about how the last few probably eclipsed all of the previous decades in terms of accelerated change, due to the proliferation of so many new outlets (cable and Web sites) and online tools. I will avoid the obligatory discussions around the substance of many of these news outlets and focus simply on the network's impact on the media - it's changing everything.
I am not pointing out anything new, when I say that the traditional media outlets that resisted the change or who were too slow to adapt, have found themselves struggling to retain a consumer base and relevancy in an increasingly digital world. It's the reason we have seen so many declarations of the newspaper's inevitable demise.
I wouldn't call these folks Nostradamus - anyone who has looked at a newspaper lately knows that a simple sneeze might blow it away. And the bankruptcy filings of some of the U.S.'s largest newspapers, including the Tribune Company in December of 2008, may have provided some hints. Another could have come from the Pew Research Center - since 1994, the share of Americans reading a newspaper has dropped from 58% to 34% and, in 2008, the Internet overtook newspapers as the main source for national and international news.
But it's not just newspapers, it's the news industry as a whole. According to NPR, over the past twenty years, traditional broadcast news programs have lost a million viewers each year. On the flip side, in 2008, the top twenty online news sites saw an increase of 27% in their traffic. The Internet has shaken the very foundation from which traditional news organizations, including print, radio, and TV, originally gained strength and status.
The traditional news sources no longer have "control" over the distribution medium because the Internet is open to everyone. Information can come from anywhere and be distributed worldwide at the click of a button. This has impacted the way we value content as a whole, which is often available for free. Intellectual property is freely circulated - rather than trying to prevent distribution (remember - All Rights Reserved or Do not distribute disclaimers?), content creators are now looking at ways to increase it (providing attributions and easy links). Information derives value from greater reach versus tighter control.
News reporters aren't the only ones that have a pulse on what's going on; now, anyone with an Internet connection can report the news. And the role reporters needed to play as an objective third-party witness to events is now a collective responsibility (the implications of which is the topic for another blog). With the portability of Internet-connected devices, anyone that is present when news occurs can capture the facts and immediately post them to inform the world. Sometimes they are the only ones that can get the news out, such as in areas of conflict where traditional media may be banned - for example during the riots following the presidential election in Iran, citizen videos, phone calls, Tweets and blog posts were the only way we received real-time information on what was going on in the streets.
News organizations have also always prided themselves on being the authorities on what is news and of interest to the public; but the Internet has turned this paradigm on its head - the public is determining what is newsworthy (which has pros and cons, again another topic for another blog) and anyone can be the one to report on it. Some news organizations have harnessed the public's manpower, such as OhmyNews, which has 60,000 "citizen reporters" that contribute to making it one of South Korea's most influential media outlets.
The network is creating a different world that is connected together unlike anything we have ever seen. Any company, organization, government, school, religion, charity, or sports team that does not use this new found connectivity, will lose their impact. It's not just the news, it's the future. Or as Cronkite would have said "And that's the way it is..."