Old school, old news

A new report from Harvard suggests that the Internet is “redistributing the news audience in a way that is pressuring some traditional news organizations.”

Stop the presses.

The report from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government purports to peer into the future of news in America. But “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet” neither advances the theory of creative destruction introduced by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 40s (and later appropriated by enterprising Harvard Business School professors-consultants Richard Nolan and David Croson in 1995, then Clayton Christensen in 2001), nor illuminates the migration of news and information consumers to the Internet.

Rather, the report by JFK Government School professor Thomas E. Patterson applies a thin methodology – web traffic estimates of “unique users” – to support old chestnuts about what is happening to traditional organizations that produce print, broadcast and Internet news for what was formerly known as the mass media audience, local and national. Patterson all but apologizes in the second sentence of the report: “ … our assessments are necessarily speculative.” Veritas.

The shaky methodology and flawed premise validate conclusions that have been obvious for some time. Sure creative destruction is and has been occurring in news as well as every other sector. Almost everyone understands that. But we should be wary about conclusions based on unreliable, comparative metrics on how someone’s computer is hitting someone else’s servers on a monthly basis, then spreading that data over a time when computer and media usage have increased exponentially. As media usage changes and expands, it is reasonable to expect that “monthly users” are increasing or being redistributed throughout media.

The Harvard report assigns commercial statistics to apples-to-oranges comparisons about content and services — only some of which have to with the distribution of news and advertising — that different platforms provide in the eroding, controlling environment of mass-media distribution.

The conclusion that local web sites are losing audience to big, online competitors is largely unsupported, counter-intuitive to the Internet’s organizing principle of community. There’s more of everything, a proliferation of sources, and an endless array of choice in open markets, physical and virtual, for news and information.

Our research suggests that audiences are using multiple brands — as many as 12 to 15 day — for information, including news, and for interacting. That should change tired, self-serving notions about monopolizing or dominating markets to those who are the best at facilitating and serving markets.

At a time when all producers of online content and services crave fresh insight on the shift in media usage and behavior, Harvard has given us a hollow report that is so old school.

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