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Humpty Dumpty won't get put back together

As the ground shifts underneath, why is it taking the media industry so long to get out ahead of a game-changing technology curve?

Earlier this week I ran into a colleague who had moved out of town a few months ago. After swapping the usual gossip, the conversation swung around to the recent layoffs sweeping the news business. Here in Northern California, both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News recently announced major cuts in staff. Then earlier this week, tech publisher CMP laid off some 200 employees in a bloodletting that included several of the company's best known reporters and editors.

These are rough times for the news business. The present is unsettling and the future appears grim. But as The Bard famously noted, the fault is not in our stars but in our selves. If we want someone to blame, just look in the mirror. Why it's taken this long for the media profession to recognize technology's transforming impact remains one for the history books.

I was reminded of the time when a moderator asked attendees at a meeting of The American Society of Newspapers Editors if they recognized the name Craig Newmark. Only a few people raised their hands. Asked about Craigslist, a few more hands shot up.

That was in 2005.

Meanwhile the continuing popularity of RSS feeds and blogs has effectively put a coda on the supposedly halcyon era when journalism was a one-way soliloquy starting and ending with the reporter. Now it's a conversation with our readers--and that's been all for the good. No news about that any more. Observers of the tech scene like Dave Winer and Dan Gillmor, among others, have blogged about this shift for quite some time.

Sadly, the new reality kept getting ignored by the folks in charge at most media companies. Blogs? RSS feeds? Simply the flavor du jour. They'll pass from the scene quickly enough.

Wishful thinking, guys.

I don't understand what's so hard for them to grasp. Humpty Dumpty won't get put back together. The fragmentation of the media landscape is only in its early stages and the view will look a lot different over the next five years. Am I pessimistic? Not necessarily so. To be sure, the emergence of new ways of delivering information is going to create new challenges. It also offers opportunities. But that assumes the folks in charge stop denying the evidence accumulating before their eyes.

Maybe that's taking place--belatedly. Unfortunately, it's always the rank-and-file that ultimately pays the price for the mistakes of muddle-headed management.