Three recent and notable developments on the local media scene provide stark evidence that the industry, roiled by the recession, the internet and massive structural and market changes, is still in the midst of turmoil.
They’re also a reminder that no one, not even the new-era, next-generation media ventures that were supposed to define how consumers get information in the 21st century, have figured out what this industry is going to look like or how it will work.
By now, turmoil is the old normal for a media market that has seen two daily newspapers disappear and radio and TV properties routinely change hands. Even by that standard, the announcements of KUOW’s proposal to buy KPLU, public television station KCTS’s absorbing the online issues-and-politics website Crosscut and Seattle Weekly’s cutting staffers and relying on freelancers and content from sister publications were eye catching.
Money certainly plays a part in all three deals, although Pacific Lutheran University, the license holder for jazz and National Public Radio station KPLU-FM, says it’s not motivated to sell by financial pressure (PLU would receive $8 million, $7 million of that in cash). Instead, says a letter from an alumni board in support of the deal, the decision reflects “the significant difference between licensing and operating a radio station, and educating undergraduate and graduate students.”
That position has been met with considerable skepticism and criticism from the station’s listeners, who cite Standard & Poor’s downgrading of PLU’s debt and a generally negative report on the school’s finances as indicators of the sale’s real drivers. They’re also worried about what happens to KPLU’s jazz and news programming once KUOW is calling the shots. (The outcry has been sufficiently loud that KUOW says it will back off if a competitive offer from a community group surfaces.)
Radio is old media. Crosscut was supposed to be an exemplar of how new media would work when David Brewster founded it in 2007. But it has wrestled with an old-media problem — money. It converted to a nonprofit, ran pledge drives and landed grant money to keep the website lit. Now comes the merger into KCTS, which has had its own money headaches over the years and cutbacks in local programming. Neither entity has been specific about how the new arrangement will work, beyond such assertions as the one from KCTS that Crosscut “will be able to produce more multimedia content for its audience” by combining resources with the TV station.
Seattle Weekly was another Brewster venture that has gone through several ownership changes since, as well as competition in the alt-weekly market from The Stranger and a plunge in ad sales. The cutting of six full-time jobs is part of a move to what Publisher Bob Baranski called “a variable-cost model.” Some of the content will come from other papers owned by Sound Publishing, which publishes dozens of daily and weekly papers in Washington.
For readers, listeners and viewers, the churning in information sources is nothing new. From the disappearance of daily newspapers to the rise of social media, news consumers have been adapting to new sources and technologies for information delivery.
And while some names they’re familiar with are disappearing or consolidating into other ownership, the sheer quantity of sources is, if anything, increasing. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, gone as a print product for almost seven years now, spawned at least a half-dozen new media ventures. In the same announcement as the Crosscut deal, KCTS said it also added What’s Good 206, a “millennial perspective” website that has been around since way back in 2011.
Meanwhile, Luke Timmerman a biotech reporter first for The Seattle Times and later for Xconomy — itself a new-era online media venture — started a subscription-based newsletter covering the biotech industry. In just a year, he landed 1,000 subscribers. Clearly, the barriers to entry into the media business have never been lower. The barriers to sustained success, however, may be higher than ever, in large part because of so many entrants and players chasing the same readers, listeners and viewers. Be assured that more media sources are on the way. And so is more turmoil.