The 6 o’clock news is a 1950s department store

By DJ Kelly August 18, 2009

For my CBC Wildrose column today I chose to speak about ESPN and the Southeastern Conference (NCAA)’s new social media policies. (You can listen online here.)

As the host, Donna McElligott points out toward the end of the interview, what we are really seeing here in sports organizations is they are struggling with the same issue newspapers and other news organizations are facing: what happens when users can reproduce content at a fraction of the cost?

Just as news groups struggle with the emergence of aggregators and “citizen journalists” (aka bloggers, Twitterers, etc) who break news before they can and slowly eat away at their audience, we can see these two large sports organizations struggle with average people – as well as their own staff – eating away at their audiences by providing much the same services. Only more quickly, or in more detail, or on a more personal level, etc. This is horrible news for these groups as it puts billions of dollars in advertising at risk.

It is another business model that is at risk.

This parallel was quickly noticed following the interview and a discussion with host and producers ensued. It’s clear many people are scared of the uncertainty of the future of these industries. But let me be clear: your industry, even your job, are not going anywhere. Just your employer. Here’s why:

I compare the current state of the news economy to that of the decline of the department store and the rise of the shopping mall. When the general store entered onto the scene it was, as the name implies, everything to everybody. If you wanted something you had to go to town and get it at the general store. This worked great for many years. Eventually the landscape shifted and more and more people began living in cities. As a response the general store became larger and larger – eventually becoming what we know as the department store. Still everything to everybody. Their business model was threatened by they found a way to make it work but changing how they do what they do slightly. At this time, convenience was the number one concern.

Over time as convenience became less of an issue (everyone started buying cars and could now get anywhere in a city they wanted) niche players slowly began entering the market and eating up much of the department store’s business. It’s a well documented fact that niche markets almost always win out. (In effect, we, as a society, trust specialists more than generalists.) The final nail in the coffin for many of the department stores was when a large group of these niche retailers banded together to share their best skills and began forming shopping malls. Now you could get all the goods you wanted in one place AND from a specialist. The days of the department store were numbered, beaten at their own game.

The 6 o’clock news is a 1950s department store.

First news small local organizations formed larger conglomerates in response to the changing landscape. And now we are starting to see evidence of individual specialists nibbling away at the network news’ market share; this is what broadcasters are complaining about when you hear them shout that “the sky is falling!”.

It won’t be long before we see individual specialists coming together for mutual benefit. But what will be the news’ ‘shopping mall’? Only time will tell.

The reason I bring this up is because there is actually little to fear. There are still dollars being spent on items that used to be purchased at a department store. There are still just as many people employed in retail, perhaps more. The same thing will happen with “news” as happened with “retail” given enough time. “Shopping” survived the closing of the majority of department stores just as “news” will survive the closing of the majority of main-stream media networks. Advertisers will always want to be where the audience is; just as people will always need to purchase goods.

I know change is a scary thing but we all have to learn to embrace it because nothing stays the same forever.

And yes, some department stores have even survived.