McGuire on Media

Graduate students' take on what we we did wrong in newspapers

In my 21st Century Journalism class for graduate students here at the Walter Cronkite School I have been setting up the future by studying the past.  One of the key readings was this great piece Geneva Overholser wrote in 2004 called “Profit Pressures Over Time.” After we studied the cries of people like Geneva and McGuire in the early part of the decade, we studied the implosion of the newspaper industry in the last five years or so.

Just for fun I decided to ask the students for their impressions of where mainstream media went wrong from 1995 to 2005. I asked the students to consider these three questions.

A. What should mainstream media companies have seen from 1995-to 2000 that they did not see?

B. Why did those companies not see what they should have seen.

C. What might the media world look like today if mainstream media had seen what they should have seen?

Here are very abbreviated versions of their answers if my note-taking succeeded. Their answers reflect 20/20 hindsight, but I think they are fun nonetheless.  

A. What should mainstream media companies have seen from 1995-to 2000 that they did not see?

  • That the Internet was not a passing fad.
  • Monetization of content should have been explored. (This is not coming off as strongly as it was expressed.  There was a high level of “what the hell were you thinking when you decided to give content away?”)
  • A new ad model needed to be explored rather than just thinking in terms of a newspaper on the web.
  • New metrics needed to be found.
  • Strategy needed to be rethought rather than letting the future “just happen.”
  • A strategic differentiation for newspapers needed to be found.
  • Publishers needed  to think about how the web was going to change behavior.
  • Geographic location was no longer important and publishers need to realize that.

B. Why did those companies not see what they should have seen?

  • There was too much separation between journalism and technologists.
  • The industry was such a cash cow, nobody could let go.
  • What has happened in the years since 19995 simply could not have been foreseen
  • The youth movement that has transformed the use of digital and dictated the future was not recognized in time. 
  • The culture of industry tradition got in the way.
  • The language surrounding strategic thinking was too set in current reality and did not explore potentials enough.

C. What might the media world look like today if mainstream media had seen what they should have seen?

  • Journalists would have developed  powerful search engines.
  • There would be an accredited association of journalists leading change. (I had trouble understanding this, but I think the key point was news organizations have stayed separate for too long when they needed to band together.)
  • There would be more established payment systems that would allow users to pay for content.
  • There would be value assigned to content. (Again, an overpowering notion. Students think we were really asleep at the switch.)
  • Technologists would be more important to mainstream media companies than they are.

I know I missed a few great ideas and perhaps my students will comment to straighten out the record.  That said, I was thrilled with their level of  engagement and their understanding of the history. 

Some of my peers complain that editors-turned-academics like me and my friend and colleague here at the Walter Cronkite School, Rick Rodriguez are too critical of our era.  I think my students make a pretty clear case we are not critical enough.

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