They come to recycle the Old Media, not to bury it

Posted: May 04, 2005 12:00 AM

Some smart "netrepreneur" should get to work on a parody song titled "Bloggers Killed the Newspaper Star."

The original MTV generation will get the reference to days gone by when the network ran these strange things called "music videos." The first video MTV ran was "Video Killed the Radio Star." If you haven't noticed, that didn't quite pan out. Radio surely has its problems, but it's still around. Meanwhile, MTV is now basically a "lifestyle" network, running programming remarkably similar to that of PBS, A&E and other "adult" - in the non-porn sense - networks. Sure, MTV packages its wares differently, but if you can look past the exposed navels, pierced faces and butt tattoos, you're less judgmental than I am.

But, seriously, MTV's programmers are basically recyclers: The network's vast wasteland of reality shows for wastoids, including "Pimp My Ride," "Trippin' " "Punk'd," and "Cribs," are hardly path-breaking. Networks have been running shows about cars, homes, exotic travel and practical jokes for 50 years. (Does no one remember "Candid Camera?") For all their radical chic, MTV's fans are just like the past generations they so desperately want to transcend.

This should serve as a cautionary tale for those who are betting big on the doomsday scenarios being peddled about the implosion of the newspaper industry, as well as to those who await the triumph of the so-called "blogosphere." The more the media seems to change, the more its underlying patterns keep reemerging. There's truly nothing new under the sun.

A slew of Chicken Little reports have warned of late that newspapers are on the decline, as evidenced by the latest numbers showing that in the 6-month period ending in March, major newspaper circulation dropped nearly 2 percent - 900,000 fewer subscribers nationwide since last year. Meanwhile, the Internet is no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of media. According to Advertising Age, the combined ad revenues of Google and Yahoo! will be on par with the combined revenues of ABC, CBS and NBC.

There's no denying that the media landscape is changing right before our eyes. But, then, it has never stopped changing. Newspapers have been in decline for more than two decades - since long before the Internet became a media player. The "Big Three" nightly news broadcasts have been bleeding viewers for a long time as well. Today the average age of the nightly network news viewer is 60 and rising, while the share of viewers under the age of 35 is less than 10 percent. CBS News is contemplating ideas to get younger viewers, but it's hard to see how anyone watching "Pimp My Ride" is going to switch to "CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer," even if the camera work is da bomb.

But none of the newspaper industry's woes necessarily translate into the utopian fantasy of a world where blogs rule supreme and where editors and anchormen are hunted like Charlton Heston in "Planet of the Apes" (Dan Rather: "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty blogger!"). And it's not all bad news, either. In Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, The Examiner newspapers are challenging the assumption that dead-tree news is, uh, dead.

People forget that less than a decade ago, everyone was convinced that the Web was going to replace television. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into Web TV networks like on the premise that cable TV was the 8 track tape of the 1990s. The reality was something quite different. For some bizarre reason, people prefer to watch "Star Trek" reruns while splayed out on the couch or in bed - not sitting upright at their desk, staring at the same computer where they spent the entire day working. Television's not going anywhere, but it is changing rapidly as it becomes more Web-like in its interactivity and the like.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere - the fancy word for the vast digital arena where everyone from Olsen Twin stalkers to investigative journalists share their views and observations - is coalescing. Big media outlets are starting blogs and buying up the best bloggers. Independent bloggers are joining forces to achieve economies of scale for advertising and editorial direction. Just this week, some of the best bloggers created a small consortium called Pajamas Media. It's not inconceivable that consolidation will continue to the point where bloggers become new online newspapers. In South Korea there's already an online daily staffed mostly by 30,000 volunteer "citizen journalists" with a few professional editors handling the copy and fact-checking.

This may sound like a brave new world, but the idea of writers banding together to put out a joint publication is hardly new. We used to call them "magazines." If history is any guide, the Internet won't kill the traditional media, it will be absorbed by it.