What’s killing the mainstream media?

Sales are falling, the only thing keeping some media afloat is massive subsidy from parent groups, newspapers appear to be sliding down the slippery slope into a fiscal abyss. The ‘Dead Tree’ media is in trouble. TV stations are losing advertisers, but why?

At a recent literary event a few weeks ago, I was talking to a local poet who has been writing and working around mid Vancouver Island area for forty years. She vouchsafed to me that once a modest living could be made by writing, but no more. Now she didn’t run off at the mouth and blame the Interweb or new media, but made a few pointed comments about all the free content bandied about by various advocacy groups wanting to promote their causes. Lobbying companies and funding hungry NGO’s feed free sensationalised Fark and Churnalism to the news media, who, seeing a cheap way of getting content, cut back on real investigative journalism.

Now it seems to me that she has a point; I did a stint in PR back in the mid 90′s, writing hack pieces to promote the interests of the company I worked for at the time. Got a few bylines, nothing much. Wrote a lot I’m not particularly proud of, but hey, I was earning a crust. Now the practice is so widespread that it seems actually selling written copy is a dying artform. Far too much goes from press release to front page without critical thought or real fact (or spelling) checking. Actually coming across a reporter in print doing any in depth investigation nowadays is becoming rarer. Trying to sell original copy is likewise more difficult, as falling media sales occasioned by a dearth of original content encourage cash strapped editors to cut even more corners, to some extent appearing to exist almost solely on rearranged content, scarcely leaving their desks.

The real investigative journalists, at least the better ones, appear to still file copy but little of what they actually produce makes it into the front page, getting spiked or shunted into a less prominent position for more sensational stuff which junior, and less expensive staff, can unquestioningly regurgitate after minimal rephrasing to fit the relevant media outlets ‘style guide’. Normally these stories take the line that unless a certain course is taken (Usually involving a restriction or ban or some other form of draconian Governmental intervention), humanity is, even if only in a small way, doomed. Be afraid, be very afraid. Cower brief mortals.

Taken together this torrent of press releases paint a false nightmare surrealist vision of the world, where every solitary old person is a child stealing pervert, every kid in a hooded sweatshirt some kind of criminal mastermind, where every mouthful is so laden with bad things that you will die if you take just one small bite. The faintest sniff of smoke or lick of salt will kill you stone dead. Most of it is exaggerated, and the hyperbole is like pollution to the soul, it stains.

The real problem is that for every ‘World is ending if you don’t’ (Whatever) story, public reaction grows ever more cynical when the promised cataclysm does not arrive, or the timeline adjusted yet again. Rather like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Harold Campings once almost constant revising of the end of all things. Now we have arrived at the point where only the truly gullible and unquestioning will take a sensationalising report at face value. Be the story about CAGW (Sinking Titanic-like under the weight of its own bullshit), terrorist threats (Wildly overstated), dying Ursus Maritimus (Polar Bear population has increased and stabilised), new threat of an ‘orrible disease carried by sparrows (H1N1, ‘bird flu’ remember?), terrifying Asteroids or ancient cultures who died out before they could write another calendar. Humanity is assumed to be the cause of every natural disaster (Likewise not very often true).

So, faced with a fundamental disconnect with what they see happening in the real world, and what the traditional news media tell them, an increasing number of people are (Quite understandably) migrating their reading to the alternatives, or basically not bothering at all. Their attitude appears, increasingly to be “Oh God – what is it now?”

To give a little perspective; I grew up during one of the two hottest phases of the Cold War (Cuban missile Crisis, Vietnam), with nuclear Armageddon seemingly mere heartbeats away, every single day of the week. With the IRA leaving bombs on English streets and killing civilians. Yet here we all are. The Earth still turns to face the sun as it scrolls up over the horizon every morning. My putative grandchildren will one day glance back abstractedly and wonder what all the fuss was about. Perhaps all the hype will be dismissed as readily as modern historians discard the 10th and 11th century millennial ‘Second coming’ cults. Barely worthy of footnotes in the greater scheme of things.

I can foresee future archaeologists puzzling over the material fallout of the end of world predictions like the bases of collapsed wind turbines, and treating them as mere curiosities. Perhaps like Martello towers and other such defunct fortifications.

Yet where will the current mainstreams role be mentioned in the insanity that spawned them? Perhaps they will do what they always do, shrink, adapt, sensationalise, titillate and keep going. Even with the upcoming challenges from new media sources I think the major players will survive because some Murdoch or Hearst like figure will keep them going. Even if they fail, new ones will spring up because such publications fill an intrinsic human need for stimulation. Because even the most introverted and autistic must communicate. We are instinctively hard wired to seek out others of our kind and share our thoughts. Perhaps this is what Donne meant when he wrote that “No man is an Island.”

As the much-vaunted US President Francis Delano Roosevelt said in his inaugural address; the ‘only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ Indeed. The world will not kill us because we will adapt, it’s what humans as a species are really, really good at. The overwhelming majority of us will not be eaten, stung, or die horribly of the latest disease fad. Even if early demise is your eventual fate, what’s the point of cowering in a corner because some cheap intellectual bully gleefully touts the odds of your dying early to make their living? You’ll be dead regardless. To quote my father, who often told me “It’s a short life, but a merry one.”

Today I have spent time outside, writing in the British Columbian sunshine despite a chill edge in the morning breeze, watching the antics of a Rufous Hummingbird, idly wondering if I should spend ten bucks on a feeder to tempt it within camera close up. Youngest is on a road trip through the Southern USA and will return home within six weeks. Mother in Law is back from respite and less of a sleep problem because we’ve stopped pandering to her every self indulgent attention seeking moan (Even though her whining is an almost constant background noise). I will be ignoring her as much as possible for the next thirty days, after which we get our lives and home back. Good riddance.

Today is my first real day off in over a week. I’ve read the online media as much as I care to, and life, for the moment is good. The mainstream media stormtroopers of fear and guilt are far away, the birds and insects are busy with the surplus of spring, and another Winter is over. There is tea. There are bacon sandwiches. I’ve known things a whole lot worse.

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One thought on “What’s killing the mainstream media?”

  1. Today I have spent time outside, writing in the British Columbian sunshine despite a chill edge in the morning breeze

    Can’t imagine anything better – I love BC.

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