Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Corporate Trainers and Communicators Not Immune to Trends in Traditional Media

Any of us who work in the media, even if we work in a training or internal or technical communications group, must certainly feel troubled by the problems faced by the commercial media. The old media—newspapers, magazines, and television—is bleeding viewers, advertisers, and revenue. In response, most are cutting expenses, which translates into lost jobs and less coverage. Many new media sites—like webzines and web-based news—are either marginally or not yet profitable, so they’re not necessarily absorbing the losses.

More fundamentally, changes in the media will have profound social and intellectual impacts. Mass media has a near universal reach so it creates a common experience among all users. More significantly, because it serves a wide audience, it tends to emphasize some level of balance in its reporting and provides people with access to opinions that challenge the ones they hold. (Whether that balance is perceived is another issue.)

In contrast, the newer media—and the more profitable versions of traditional media—appeal to niches, like Fox News appeals to conservative and MSNBC appeals to progressives. According to a column by Nicholas Kristoff, these niche media rely more on reinforcing and supporting the beliefs and values of their users rather than broadening them. Similarly, partly because of their appeal to niches and partly because of economics, these niche sources rely more on commentators than reporters. Commentators may or may not rely on empirical evidence to support their opinions. These sources also solicit stories from "citizen journalists" who might have more immediate access to news, but have neither the training nor the professional ethic to get all sides of a story or to avoid speculation. And they’re less expensive than salaried reporters or news services. Staff at these media organizations become low-level production specialists rather than senior correspondents, lending less and less editorial expertise.

And there’s evidence that similar trends are afoot in corporate communications and training. See David Merrill and Brent Wilson’s 2006 chapter on the rise of the instructional-designer-by-assignment in Bob Reiser and John Dempsey’s 2006 book on issues in instructional design and technology. And I have an upcoming chapter in Rachel Spilka’s book on the effects of digital technology on technical communication.

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