To say that we are in a state of flux goes beyond the definition of understatement. Chrysler declared bankruptcy last month, sticking it to Lee Iaccoca – perhaps the one man who didn’t deserve it. Yesterday, General Motors announced they were declaring bankruptcy, leading to them being delisted on the Dow Jones Industrial, and perhaps with some unintended foreshadowing, replaced by Cisco, a manufacturer of Internet hardware.

The Boston Globe recently dodged a bullet, thanks to concessions from their employees, which loosely translates into employees making less money in return for their work. On the other side of the spectrum, Craig’s List has seen incredible growth in the last decade in their advertising revenue.

To illustrate this change, Pew Research Center recently released a report showing that online advertising is rising while print advertising is plummeting.

“Nearly half (49 percent) of Internet users say they have ever used online classified sites,” the Pew Center said in the report. In 2005, the percentage was 22 percent.

How bad it the carnage? Well, to borrow a “wisdom” from the US print media back in their heyday, it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Is it just me or does the angle of trajectory in the graph above (from 2000 forward) look somewhat similar to  the following picture?


Attempting to ascertain exactly why this is happening could be an interesting study but from this author’s perspective not really relevant to our immediate future and even less so when we look at the longer term projections. However, let’s look at what we do know, or in the words of that pillar among pillagers, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Well, I honestly can’t add anything to Donald Rumsfeld‘s masterful explanation of reality but I can share with you a few interesting facts that seem pertinent.

In today’s world, people don’t seem to have the time to read. In fact, in just the last 25 years we have seen a dramatic decline in the amount of reading we are willing to do as a society. In the 1980s President Reagan demanded that every issue presented to him, regardless of complexity, be reduced to a single page, in our day and age Twitter limits these thoughts to 140 characters.

This seems to be the intellectual equivalent of what has been termed by the advertising industry as “rightsizing” which apparently began around the time when coffee ceased to be packaged in a one pound can, even though many of the companies cheerfully printed on their cans that their smaller cans made as much coffee as their larger cans used to. I suspect that this is what led Dunkin Donuts to advertise that they were selling Kahlua flavored syrup which could be added to your coffee, ostensibly to give it a coffee flavor.

In a recent grocery trip I noticed a box of cereal that contained 8.75 ounces, leading me to suspect that the manufacturer had left just a little more space in the box to accommodate the settling of its contents during transportation.

But I digress…

What can we extrapolate from the declining revenues in print media?

The obvious explanation is that the cost is perceived as being too high for the value received. If we look at my local newspaper and the amount of readers that might see my add, factoring in their advertisement cost and then look at the same advertisement on Craig’s List (at no cost) somehow the chances of me spending money on my local paper are slim to none. With the recent trend that governments are moving towards using their websites to publish public notices as well as job listings, two distinct ramifications are occurring. The first (and probably most obvious) impact is that what used to be considered the cash cow of print advertising revenue is disappearing. The second, and more insidious, shift is that those Americans who, for whatever reason, are not “plugged into the net” are becoming further disenfranchised, leaving them to the mercy of the televised media for all of their information.

This creates a new dynamic, one that needs to be closely examined, which asks where does this online information, as well as what remains in the print and television media, get created? The obvious answer is that someone somewhere writes this material which is then printed or spoken in the respective media outlets. One might then ask, what effect does “rightsizing” have on both of those informational resources? Well, that leads us back to the Boston Globe story where we are forced to wonder if the quality of their writing will remain now that they are paying less for their content. My guess is that the Globe may one day have on it’s masthead that this newspaper wraps as much fish as our old newspaper did – but again, I digress.

Another shift that can be clearly seen is that consumers don’t appear to be satisfied with the one way information flow that has traditionally been how radio, TV and the print media has always done business. Sure, some radio station formats allowed for people to call in and newspapers would publish a few letters to the editors but the idea of an ongoing dialog fell flat in both of those venues.

Today, sites like SlashDot and Fark post news stories but the real action is in the discussion. The implementation of this type of dialog by the print media, primarily known as their comments section, falls indescribably short of what online sites are doing – and it shows.

Another wrinkle in this ever-shrinking demand for quality content has to be the content creation companies. The need for content is soaring while the price the content commands is falling off. From what used to be dollars per words written has now become pennies per word and not very many pennies at that. Many of these sites don’t actually pay their content creators but instead opt for an advertising revenue split – leaving one to wonder what the quality of their content can actually be if the author is left starving while waiting for page views and advertisement click-throughs to generate small change per day. If this is the case, and it certainly appears to be, what kind of quality control can these businesses be applying to the content they publish given the consideration that they must regularly aggregate fresh content in order attract return readers.

Perhaps the most troubling question about this entire issue is that if we do truly understand that an educated electorate is required for a representative democracy to function, what are we doing to our intellectual underpinnings? If the quality of the information we are being fed is taking the same trajectory as the train in the picture above, at what point will our political system be incapable of functioning?

Even more to the point, does anyone actually know if we haven’t already passed that point?

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