6/24/08

CHANGING FORMS AND FUNCTIONS OF NEWS MEDIA

Fundamental social and technological changes are altering the functions of news media for audiences and advertisers and significantly altering the situations of specific forms of news media.

Most of us recognize that form and function are linked together, with the form of objects influenced by their use, economics, and technology (Something architects and designers have recognized for more than a century). Contemporary technology has broken the connection between the traditional forms and functions of news providers and made it possible to serve the functions of legacy news organizations and news distribution in many different forms. This development is undermining the consumer and financial bases of long-established news media.

Because they have been in place for so many decades, it is easy to forget that established news media developed their forms within specific economic and technological environments. The form of newspapers and radio and television newscasts developed when new technologies allowed creations of mass audiences, distributed news to them at specific times, and supported the delivery of low priced and free news because advertisers of general consumer products paid to reach those audiences.

Today, the underlying elements of that business model, which was highly successful in the twentieth century, are decaying. Mass audiences are disappearing, technology is providing new ways to reach audiences, individuals are becoming active, integral participants in the communication process, and advertising are seeking more effective ways to reach potential customers.

These changes are significantly altering the functions previously played by metropolitan daily newspapers and network and local radio and television newscasts as primary creators and distributors of news and information. The dominance they once had has been replaced by ubiquitous distribution technologies that provide a continually updated stream of news through cable channels, Internet portals and news sites, social networking sites, mobile devices, and news screens on buildings and in public transportation.

It should be no surprise, then, that the form of legacy news provision is no longer as successful as it was in the past. Those who own and work for legacy organizations see the changes as cataclysmic, but the shifting of functions to more forms is natural and provides significant benefits to those who want news and information.

We have seen this type of displacement before, even within our lifetime. Life magazine, for example, played significant roles in conveying news and features on social life from the 1930s to the 1970s, but lost its functions with the arrival of new technology and changes in social life. As the foremost visual presenter of photojournalism, the magazine once garnered 13.5 million circulation, but changing media preferences for audiovisual materials on television news and magazine shows stripped Life of its audience and advertising.

Many functions of network television news, which grew rich in the 1960s and 1970s, were displaced in the 1970s and 1980s by local television newscasts that provided more hours of news and more opportunities for viewers to get international, national, and local news. That displacement was compounded by the development of 24-hour cable news channels.

Today, further displacement of the functions of network and local television news is taking place and the functions of metropolitan daily newspapers are being significantly affected. This does not the end of news provision, however. Although many journalists in the legacy media desperately assert that only the forms of news in the organizations that employ them can serve social needs and provide quality journalism, the reality is far different.

Reputable and well-trained journalists are now establishing new journalistic forms on the Internet, linking web and print operations, and syndicated materials produced by web-based news providers. There are more journalistic startups now than anyone can ever recall.

Although web-based news has historically be aggregated materials from traditional sources, these new enterprises—some commercial and some non-commercial—are increasingly providing original journalism. Some are concentration on serious investigative national and international reporting; some are providing hyper-local coverage; and some are providing coverage of specialized topics. These serve some functions previously provided by legacy media and some functions legacy media ignored.

The technologies are also allowing engaged citizens to create and distribute news and information on their own, supplementing material produced by professional journalists or providing material in its absence.

These are healthy developments for journalism and for those who want news and information. Although the form of provision is changing, the functions of gathering and conveying news and information and the functions of keeping people informed and engaged are continuing and being improved.

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