Losing mass media means losing a sense of community

Kelly Toughill

It is time to stop focusing on the decline of newspapers and start worrying about the loss of mass media in general.

The newspaper crisis is a symptom of a broader problem. We are in danger of losing institutions that cut across income, race, culture, gender and age to provide a shared intellectual space in society. We are in danger of losing one of the few activities that forces us, even briefly, to consider people, ideas and interests different than our own.

Mass media builds community. Or at least it did.

It is not just newspapers that are ailing these days; it is also network television and general interest magazines. Even the big Internet sites like Facebook are failing to thrive.

The common narrative goes like this: The Internet is killing newspapers because it is faster, cheaper and easier for readers to use. The casualties are jobs and public interest journalism essential to democracy.

Wrong. The Internet is part of the problem, but not because it is faster and easier. The Internet hurts old media because it can deliver targeted advertising to niche markets without wasting time and money delivering ads to those who aren’t interested.

It is the fragmentation of the marketplace that is hurting newspapers most, not new technology. Very few general-use products are created these days. Even toothpaste and toilet paper are marketed to niche groups, as are everything from house paint to cereal and custom vacations. The problem for a newspaper is that all of its targeted sections (Life, Business, Sports) are delivered to everyone, which makes the paper very expensive to produce.

When a targeted magazine or Internet site promises to reach the same niche audience for a fraction of the price, what advertiser is going to turn it down?

That is why even newspapers with increasing circulation (and yes, there are some) started losing ad revenue long before the recession arrived.

Network television is suffering from the same problem. Why advertise on a network when you can place your ad for less money on a specialty channel that caters to your specific market?

The big networks in Canada haven’t made a profit since 2005, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, but they have made money with their gaggle of specialty channels. In 2007, the same year that the big networks (excluding CBC) lost $4 million, YTV showed a pre-tax profit of $42.5 million and kept 47 cents of every dollar it took in.

Newspapers may end up following the niche model. That trend has proven lucrative in India, where small newspapers cater to tiny pockets of culture, language and class, and the industry is booming.

If so, many of the journalism jobs now disappearing could be saved, and the new, tightly targeted newspapers could resurrect the public service journalism now slipping away.

But they won’t create the community-building function of mass media. When readers look for a sports story or a horoscope in a newspaper, they browse through all sorts of content they wouldn’t necessarily choose to see on their own. The same thing happens with local and network news; viewers must wait for the stories that interest them, and learn about other things in the meantime. All of that wasted time is actually part of building community, a way to make us listen to each other.

Sure, big newspapers and network television aren’t the only place that happens. We share public schools, parks, playgrounds and sidewalks. And some argue that the Internet is the biggest commons of the intellect we’ve ever had. But you don’t have to browse through much foreign thought to find your own tribe on the Internet. Mass media sites like YouTube and Facebook have seeped into the fabric of our lives, but they aren’t showing a profit either.

Facebook is the biggest social networking site in the world, but founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted in November that he hasn’t figured out how to make money with the thing yet. Google executives said last year that their top priority is to turn a profit from the video-sharing site YouTube.

Niche marketing has been a growing trend for a very long time. What is new is the realization that having 34 different kinds of toothpaste in one store encourages the fragmentation of society itself.

Kelly Toughill is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College, Halifax and a contributing editor for the J-Source Business of Journalism J-Topic.

(This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.)