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My Turn
Other Views from Those in the Know
Dennis Maley
Demise of Florida Voices Another Canary in the Coal Mine

For the past year and a half, Florida Voices has stood out as an exemplary source of credible analysis of the many issues facing our state.

By aggregating state news stories and then providing expert, fact-based perspective from talented and experienced columnists, it has been a valuable one-stop medium for Florida political news.

In today's age of digital media and its comparatively miniscule revenue sources, any news pro will tell you that's an ambitious undertaking. Still, its failure to catch on does not bode well for fans of quality journalism.

Early on, many had hoped that digital news would actually improve the media paradigm.

By greatly reducing the enormous cost of the printed product while enhancing a publication's reach, there was reason to be optimistic.

Yes, the revenue model was challenging. Readers had been conditioned to believe that everything on the Internet was free and advertisers had been conditioned to believe that the comparatively small and largely uninspiring digital ads were worth only a fraction of the more grandiose print ones.

With less space to offer, that becomes a problem. Every effort to enhance ad value – rollovers, pop-ups, commercial video, etc. – seemed to provoke enormous reader push back. Try and make the ad seem more valuable to the client and lose readers, the thing that is ultimately most valuable to that client. It's like Chinese finger cuffs.

But the biggest challenge just may have been the focus on metrics and what they ultimately said about news consumers. In the digital age, we suddenly had an unthinkable amount of data on the habits of our readers – which story they clicked on, how long they stayed, how many stories they viewed.

Prior, everything had been driven by a single and easily inflated number – circulation. Rather than focusing on standards, quality and relative importance, media coverage became a slave to whatever was “trending.”

Sure, many publications maintained the highest standards – Florida Voices being one of them – but compare their fate to a site like the Huffington Post, which basically built a half-billion dollar empire by monitoring whatever was trending on Internet search engines and social networks, then immediately harvesting a three-paragraph story sourced from some real newspaper's hard work.

In the industry, we call that whoring clicks.

Look at the most successful digital-age publications and they are almost all either apparatuses that are heavily subsidized by one of the big remaining print platforms, propaganda mills telling one ideological faction or the other exactly what they want to hear, or low-brow entertainment sites.

Even the most profitable hard news sites focus almost exclusively on hot-buttoned national issues. The reason is simple: you're not going to get impressive click counts with local government and state politics, no matter how important they are, or how good the coverage is. The defunct Florida Independent, which preceded Voices as our best source of real state-level news, is a great example.

Perhaps the market for fact-based news and analysis of vital issues was always relatively small, but the struggle for revenues and the endless reams of reader data are putting more pressure on publishers than ever to go to the reader, rather than attempt to attract them with quality journalism.

There have been Pulitzer Prizes won for stories read by 600 people, but those same stories have also led to indictments and reforms. If a big local government story is read by the right 200 people in a town of 50,000, it can move mountains – I've seen it.

But in the digital-age, there is little patience for stories that don't spawn thousands of clicks and almost no appetite for the kind of financial investment required to produce the kind of investigative reporting that bring tons of credibility, but little revenue.

To make matters worse, the revenue challenges on the so-called “desktop model” were nothing compared to what the industry is moving toward as more and more readers consume their news on mobile devices, which offer even less advertising real estate.

Unless readers prove more willing to pay subscriptions fees for online news, the current trend will quickly get worse and the small, independent news outlets that have long kept corporate media at least somewhat in check, will become a thing of the past.

Fewer journalists are earning a living in the media than anytime since it began collecting data in the late 1970's, according to a recent Pew report on the state of the media.

Unfortunately, as the shuttering of Florida Voices demonstrates, the losses are coming where they're felt the most. With smaller staffs and fewer resources, but equal or greater requirements for content, PR firms and government PIO officers end up driving the news cycle much more than ethical and impassioned journalists.

I myself am unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to deliver independent news every day, but I would be lying if I said I had a lot of optimism for our industry.

Thank you Florida Voices for all that you have brought to the debate. I hope that your final contribution is to serve as a wake-up call about the future of quality media, which too often seems like one of those things a free society doesn't miss until it's too late.

Dennis Maley is a columnist and editor for the Bradenton Times, an online daily newspaper serving Manatee County, FL. He can be reached at [email protected]


© Florida Voices   

Published Thursday, May 02, 2013