The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
It was a bold enough statement for me to take note - and to recount now more than 20 years on.
While on a study tour of the US in 1996, I was talking to a senior media executive in Chicago who emphatically declared, without a hint of self doubt: “In 10 to 15 years, people will look at a newspaper and laugh”.
Sure enough it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but print still matters - not just to news folk but also to those in the communications business finessing their media ecosystems.
Local government is the poster child for a sector hiding its light under a bushel – and it’s time for it to shine.
Many residents and ratepayers rate their councils lowly. We know that because even the councils say it.
I have checked in on some of the community engagement statistics for various councils, and there is nothing to write home about.
Year of reckoning for Facebook, Zuckerberg and social media: 4 insights for communication professionals
Have you noticed the world spinning a tad slower since the Facebook algorithm changes?
My feed has more personally relevant posts now and less noise from those outside my inner circle.
That was the intention when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that users’ posts and engagement would gain greater prominence at the expense of “public posts from businesses, brands and media”.
Facebook wants to favour content that prompts conversation and users’ active participation rather than stuff that just gets liked for the heck of it, including previously popular video. Sounds like less cats and more discussion touchpoints.
Already, time on Facebook has dropped marginally - and Zuck seems fine about that.
At times, my news feed resembled more an eclectic mish-mash of news and product information than a space for personal interactions with buddies.
But these changes have challenged the approach of many content marketers who had crafted strategies for clients around social media, especially Facebook, as well as media players who embraced distributing news via the platform. To be fair, though, users will be asked to indicate media they trust, which may improve the ranking of those outlets.
Big media has defined the public impression about print - closures, sell-outs, layoffs and dwindling profitability.
But in the world of small publishers it is actually a far more positive scene.
Community newspapers, which comprise the overwhelming number of newspapers across the world, tell a different story to the big media’s narrative of How Digital Killed Print.
The small newspaper market faces similar challenges from media fragmentation, but the strong appetite for hyperlocal news means the local paper continues to provide a great sales and marketing environment.
Take New Zealand.
When quarterly circulation figures next ping the email boxes of newspaper publishers, it is likely to be another sea of red.
I am old enough that I recall those days as an editor when you could experience the adrenalin rush of a circulation spike. No such thing today. In the past five years, moderate decline, say negative one to three per cent, is as good as it gets.
The romantic in us wants to believe newspaper decline will plateau. There is no evidence of this.
However, there are seven big mistakes that newspapers regularly make that are killing them. Avoid them, and you can make print stronger for longer.
Letter from New York: words of encouragement for those working in the world's most disrupted industry - media
If you are in media and feeling light-headed, take a deep breath - you have been working in the most disrupted of industries. You deserve a beer or something harder.
Now sit down. Because I have encouraging news for you - as well as same trends to consider from my recent sabbatical in New York.
What you do not want to hear is that the pace of change will continue as it has been. It won’t. It will multiply - that’s according to everyone at the forefront of change.
The good news for media is that clear paths have emerged.
The fog of uncertainty has lifted around paywalls, on how best to fund journalism and on where Facebook and Google fit into the media equation - well, sort of.
Media folk also have a lot to thank Donald J Trump for - because he has re-stoked the fires of quality journalism.
In short, for the first time in years, the media has reason to feel optimistic.
I spent two weeks in New York visiting established and new media players, as well as attending the International News Media Association (INMA) world congress. During an INMA-run study tour I visited iconic media, including The New York Times (NYT), Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Google. I visited start-ups Playbuzz and established digital companies such as Chartbeat and Nativo.
Some of the deepest insights came from talking with media executives. I spent time with delegates from the US, Germany, China, India, Latin America, South Africa, Finland, Norway, Sweden. Gee, even Australians and Kiwis.
What were the themes? I shared a bunch in a blog aimed at communications teams and those wanting to craft their own DIY Newsroom™.
Here I zone on what is of relevance to the news industry and those keen for solutions.
So let’s roll.
The stodgy stuff of reinventing business models and how best to use data is consuming the world’s top media executives in 2017.
The new shiny toys of immersive reality and 360-video are receiving plenty of attention and funding, but for the most part big media is focused on getting its house in order.
That is about returning to purpose and applying a traditional sales funnel approach to convert window shoppers into fully-fledged subscribers and then maximising revenue per user. Joining the dots between data and customer conversion is critical.
Funnels? Data? Boring, huh? But for media today these are the smarts, along with amazing tech, helping companies emerge from a fog of uncertainty.
I got up close and personal with the latest global thinking by spending two weeks in New York, the self-appointed epicentre of media today.
I took a study tour of iconic media organisations, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Google, along with lesser-known but impactful start-ups PlayBuzz, Navito and Lotame.
The tour was a prelude to the International News Media Association world congress held at the New York Times Centre, attended by media executives from 40 countries, and book-ended by a workshop that built a playbook for print.
The message from New York: start spreading the news, media is fighting back. And I will address that in more detail in another blog.
For those of us in the business of communications, I identified nine themes to absorb and which will help you better understand the landscape as is stands.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.