On Friday the Rocky Mountain News closed shop for good. This was one of two major newspapers in the Denver area, and was a few days shy of its 150th birthday. This is a paper that was founded before the civil war, had tons of history, and a terrific reputation. What’s saddest is that hundreds of people who worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the businesses that supported it will now be out of jobs in one of the toughest economies in decades.
This was not unpredictable, nor was it unsuspected, and this is just the beginning. The big comet called “New Media” fell to the earth about 12 years ago, clouding over the sun of Old Media, and here we are a decade later, the Old Media Ice Age is beginning, and the dinosaurs are falling over, while the mammals scurry to find better shelter.
This is The Way Things Are Meant To Be.
I spent most of a decade inside of Old Media mostly as an outsider, so I have a pretty good perspective on it.
When I finished college, I got a couple of odd jobs working for production houses, making music videos, and working on productions for my school. In that time I also discovered the internet, and started building web pages.
That led to my first full time job in the industry at what was then Netstar Incorporated. The umbrella company for TSN and The Discovery Channel. Two of the most profitable specialty networks in Canada (at the time TSN commanded a subscription rate of about$2.00 a month, while Discovery got around $1.25…that’s a hefty chunk of the average cable bill).
They didn’t get the internet. They had a website, but it was a necessary evil. We were specifically stopped from breaking news before it went out over the network, we were given TV scripts to transpose, and we were pretty much treated as 3rd class citizens (the radio network was already 2nd class citizens).
Once inside the walls of TSN I infiltrated other departments. I did some time working on the graphics side of the house, I worked for almost a year editing Soccer Saturday and doing the odd fill in shift on SportsDesk. The highlight of my career at TSN in those days was being one of only a handful of people who made it in for the great snow storm of January 1999, where I worked for two consecutive days from 5pm one night until 3am that morning, coming back in the next day at 7am for Soccer Saturday, and going straight on until 3am, and then back in the next morning at 10am, when people started trickling in around 3pm that afternoon I finally went home again During those days I edited highlights, manned the entire internet, edited Chyron (the names on the bottom of a screen), and filled in for teleprompter a couple of times. To this day it’s one of my favourite working memories.
If I were at TSN today, that wouldn’t be possible. There are union rules that would prevent me from doing 90% of the stuff I did.
…and there’s where the big problems right now are stemming from. The unions are now primarily concerned about making sure that things don’t change, that the gravy train continues to flow, and that the needs of the employee come before the needs of the organization.
Newspapers are incredibly archiac things. They have massive heirarchy’s which were created back in the old printing days, and are not agile enough for the modern world. There is redundancy upon redundancy, contingencies built upon contingencies, and in most newsrooms technology is still just coming out of the stone ages.
In my time at the Globe and Mail, I worked on their Breaking News System, and the first questions wasn’t “how can I make this product better”, but “Will the union let me do this?”, I heard that time and again from the old guard, and I bristled against it (because I hate being told “This is the way things are and it’s the way things shall be.”). To me we were being told “Don’t do anything too revolutionary or the union will get upset.”, meanwhile the newspaper’s margins were thinning, and the changing needs of consumers were being ignored.
You can see the unions as the undoing of the “Big 3” automakers as well. With the massive labour heavy workforce sucking any and all money out of the corporations, even while the union heads told the public “Oh, it’s not that bad.” until it was too late.
In the next installment, why TV is television and New Media is not…and never the twain shall meet.