As media business models falter, from The New York Times to the big book publishers, the calamity that seems to have overtaken the public imagination is one of sudden extinction. In Michael Hirschorn’s “what if” piece in the Atlantic Monthly, he asks,
But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business – like, this May?
This dramatic hypothesis makes for good copy, and if 2008 proved anything, it’s that we can’t discount the possibility of our most venerable companies going out of business. But a focus on the dramatic obscures another possibility, an incrementally slow decay in the quality of our culture.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the Atlantic’s piece on The New York Times that got me thinking along these lines, it was NBC’s decision to move Jay Leno to primetime five nights a week. Apparently some maneuvering went into the move – NBC wanted to make sure that another network didn’t grab Leno and put him up against Conan O’Brien – but the more important motive was one of cost savings. Five hours of Leno a week is five fewer hours that the network has to spend on primetime programming. Leno is slated for 10pm each night, the time slot when network TV is likely to air its most adventurous and costly programming. Discussing the move on his Time magazine blog, TV critic James Poniewozic borrowed some lingo from the banking crisis to explain the move:
NBC, like the other big networks – and other big media, including newspapers and magazines – simply has to learn to get smaller. Think of it as de-leveraging, network-style. In an environment of cable, fewer viewers per network and less easily-found revenue, mounting big-budget entertainment three hours a night is less and less viable.
The important thing to recognize here is that NBC’s move – despite the unprecedented economic climate the network faces – isn’t one of dramatic implosion, it is one of lowering the bar and exchanging (the potential for) challenging content, for cheaper and (apologies to Jay Leno) lower quality output.
While not everyone may get exercised by losing five hours of primetime programming – some may even be cheering about it – what’s happening at NBC is undoubtedly happening all across the media and culture landscape, but it may be happening too subtly for us to notice. It’s one thing for The New York Times to suddenly cease to exist (or even for NBC to drop five hours of primetime) – those things make headlines – it’s quite another for these cutbacks and cost savings to occur incrementally, without big announcements to alert us. In the world of newspapers, a handful of reporters here and another handful there might lose their jobs and the ones that stay (who are no doubt less experienced and cheaper to employ) may pick up the slack by grabbing more bylines. In the publishing industry, it is a dozen fewer new books from this or that imprint and a handful of backlist title reprints put on hold. If you pick up the newspaper and it looks the same as it did yesterday, does that mean that you are getting everything out of it that you did yesterday? If you walk into a bookstore and the shelves are full just like they always have been, does that mean that you haven’t missed out on an important – but maybe less marketable – new work that a publisher couldn’t afford to take on?
The larger point here is that proclaiming “the death of this” or “the death of that” obscures what is almost certainly the bigger threat. If The New York Times survives through May, the Atlantic’s worst-case-scenario zero hour, it doesn’t mean that journalism has been saved. Conversely, if The Times does somehow kick the bucket in a few months, the simultaneous outcry would be deafening enough to make us stop and think about what we might be losing. But if the New York Times (and Random House and even NBC) simply slowly waste away, hollowing out until they are mere shells, a few people will surely notice but maybe not until it’s too late, and most people will not notice at all. What are the uncertain consequences of this slowly decaying media and culture?
It’s true that we, as a society, have the ability pick up some of the slack thanks to the participatory and entrepreneurial ethos that has grown out of the Internet, but this culture too is largely advertising based, and it is, for better or worse, fractured and niche-oriented. Rather than the participatory culture of the Internet “maturing” to assume the breadth and authority offered by mainstream, it may just be that mainstream media, as it trims costs and becomes more easily supported by dwindling ad revenue, simply evolves toward the Internet in being fractured and niche-oriented.
What are the lessons here? I’m not sure. Certainly a lot of mainstream media needs a better business model, but we’ve known that for a long time. Beyond that, I think we should be wary of the headline-grabbing doomsday scenarios and be vigilant instead for the slow decline and emerging blind spots as media and culture threatens to waste away.