How the Wall Street Journal scandal killed traditional print media

But February made me shiver, With every paper I’d deliver

Bad news on the doorstep; I couldn’t take one more step.

As I read the news surrounding the scandal that now engulfs the Wall Street Journal which until yesterday, was viewed as being a harbinger of ethical reporting, I could not help but think that the 2009 J. William Grimes prediction that the daily paper would be relegated to historical oblivion in 5 years time had been somewhat accelerated by the disclosure of WSJ wrongdoing.

Specifically, the Journal’s now highly publicized practice of boosting circulation numbers by way of purchasing its own newspapers through third-party facilitators for the paltry sum of a penny.  Besides receiving premium ad space, the third-party participants . . . some reluctantly it should be noted, also received favourable coverage from a paper whose objectivity and integrity are key elements of their corporate brand.

. . . But something touched me deep inside . . . 

In a somewhat ironic twist, back in 2009 I aired a segment on the PI Window on Business (Has Blogging Crossed The Threshold of Legitimacy?) in which a guest panel discussed a then recent FTC warning to bloggers that they would be held accountable for what they posted and that anything deemed to be questionable relative to what is referred to as infommercial type endorsements would be met with serious consequences.

In retrospect given the WSJ fiasco, the FTCs penny wise and pound foolish focus on bloggers now seems to be somewhat arbitrary and misguided.  After all, how can the FTC apply standards to the personal opinions expressed through an albeit burgeoning medium (re blogs) in terms of market reach, when it can’t even effectively govern what to many is the purported bastion of journalistic integrity?  Maybe we should investigate a possible connection between the FTC and WSJ?  Okay, I am only kidding about an FTC and WSJ connection . . . but then again?

However, and this is a revelation that is as sad as it is funny, WSJ’s efforts to boost circulation is largely an exercise in futility in that it reflects the broadcast mentality that is actually at the heart of the newsprint, and traditional media in general, industry’s demise.

What WSJ has failed to grasp is that true reach and influence is dictated by a convenient accessibility that facilitates a real-time conversational versus unilateral and non-instantaneous exchange of information.

This is why blogs are so popular in that if you send in a letter to the editor of a traditional print publication you are unlikely to illicit an immediate response if you receive a response at all.  Conversely, if you post a comment to a blog (and if the blog’s author is on the ball), not only are you likely to receive a response but, said response will likely be posted within a day if not hours.  As an aside, it is worth noting that to many traditional media journalists, this up front and personal interaction with their audience is somewhat intimidating and although a discussion for another day makes one think that very few of these wordsmiths will actually be able to make the transition to the new world of social media.

Of course this ultimately brings us back full circle to the FTC admonition to bloggers back in 2009, and why the WSJ scandal may mark the precipitous end of traditional newsprint.  Specifically, in reminding bloggers of the importance of one’s reputation and brand as it relates to the on-going creditability of their opinions, the FTC forgot that the same rules apply to any medium past, present and future.

Simply put, and similar to a discussion on the differences between crimes committed in the physical versus virtual realms, in which NCR Distinguished Professor of Law and Technology at the School of Law Susan Brenner delivered a harmonious truth when she said “we should not simply assume criminal conduct vectored through cyberspace represents an entirely new phenomenon, i.e. cybercrime,” as it may represent “nothing more than the perpetrators’ using cyberspace to engage in conduct that has long been outlawed,” it is the publication’s creditability versus the medium itself that is the crucial consideration.

The Wall Street Journal seems to have forgotten this timeless edict.

. . . The day the music died.


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