Media Turmoil (Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note)

by Jeff Hankins  on Monday, Mar. 9, 2009 12:00 am  

If you wonder why the media continue to deliver nonstop doses of bad economic news, be sure to remember the source.

The national media are enduring an economic crisis on multiple fronts. Their companies are bankrupt or struggling, their friends are being laid off, bloggers are stealing audiences, and in most cases, they are in the middle of a housing crisis. All this assumes they still have a job, and even then they are wondering if they will have one tomorrow.

So when the situation is that bad for the people who plan content and deliver the news, you can imagine the result. This isn't to say that consumers, companies and the government aren't fueling the steady stream of bad news.

Trying to put on a cheerful face and deliver a two-minute business report on "THV This Morning" a couple of days a week isn't the easiest thing to do. We search for a glimmer of good news amid the layoffs, poor stock market performance and yet another bad government report.

In the Arkansas market, several large media organizations are feeling the pain. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has eliminated about 50 positions and last week announced unpaid furloughs. Stephens Media Group is cutting back, and the television stations have instituted layoffs or furloughs.

How is Arkansas Business Publishing Group doing? Contrary to what executives at the Democrat-Gazette keep saying, "all media" aren't down. Our three largest publications – Arkansas Business, Little Rock Soirée and Little Rock Family – will all finish the first quarter with double-digit advertising revenue increases over the same time a year ago. Our paid circulation for Arkansas Business, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, remains as high as ever.

However, I can't assume we're going to continue to be immune to a downturn, so we're implementing cost-cutting measures like most businesses to hedge against shortfalls. On the employment front, we will fill openings for a publication designer and an experienced advertising sales representative as soon as we find them.

Battle for Ads, Audience
Aside from the economy's negative impact on advertising spending, the media's challenge is addressing two other problems: affecting how that ad spending gets divided and maintaining an audience base.

The options for companies to invest marketing dollars are never-ending – magazines, newspapers, television, radio, billboards, direct mail, Web sites, search engines and events. Little Rock and northwest Arkansas are crowded markets in particular. Advertising expenditures aren't growing much, which means companies are simply moving money among media options.

Despite all the talk that "print is dead," multiple new print titles debuted in the state last year. The Democrat-Gazette has launched a niche publications division to challenge us as its newspaper revenues plummet. We find it amusing that the daily paper suddenly wants to enter a business that for years it belittled and devalued.

The television stations now have access to additional digital signals on which to sell advertising and have reduced or cut free Web advertising programs. Everyone has a new idea for marketing on a Web site, and there's a new cable channel a day. Text message marketing is bound to grow.

In general, it seems everyone is focused on "the next big thing" in media instead of proven, established brands and products. Advertisers are driving this mentality just as much as media executives. We are all responding to the evolving media habits of consumers.

That leads me to the second point: the fractured audience.

Last I checked, each of us still has only 24 hours in a day with about 16 hours of non-sleep time on a good day. We in the media are fighting like crazy for a sliver of your attention during those 16 hours.

This is what has turned media fundamentals upside down. It started with cable television wreaking havoc on the big three networks and has continued with the Internet, the iPod, satellite radio and new print publications dividing audiences.

Daily papers and TV stations generally are losing audience share yet still trying to charge higher advertising rates. People are still reading news, but not necessarily their local daily newspapers. They are watching TV, but we've moved from four channel options to 400 for entertainment and information.

The national media would have daunting challenges even without a recession dragging down revenue, profits and job availability. Now maybe you'll understand why they may inadvertently be dragging you into their world of misery.                            

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at jhankins@abpg.com.)  

 

 

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