A 21st Century Guide to Putting Digital Media and Political News in Perspective

As a former newspaper executive turned Internet entrepreneur, I always chuckle when I get emailed a humorous list called "The Easy Guide to Keeping Newspapers and Political News in Perspective".

Three times in the past week I was sent this guide (which was developed many years ago and is "reprinted" in italics below). Perhaps my friends are increasingly nostalgic about newspapers. Or, maybe I am the only person that my friends know who was ever involved in the newspaper business.

It is an unfortunate reality that newspapers have suffered a consistent decline in circulation for decades. In 1910, over 2,200 newspapers existed in the United States compared to fewer than 1500 newspapers today. Moreover, in the six month period ending September 30, 2010, daily newspaper circulation fell 5 percent compared to the same period a year ago, and this was after an almost 9 percent drop in the previous six month period.

Meanwhile, digital media continues to grow exponentially both in terms of traffic and advertising. According to one study, traffic on the Internet is doubling every two years. The news site huffingtonpost.com, for example, has grown from 8.6 million monthly unique visitors to 14.6 million monthly unique visitors in the past twelve months, according to one report. Last year, for the first time ever, more money was spent on Internet advertising than on newspaper ads.

The Internet is not only changing the way we interact but also reshaping the world as we know it. In the 1970s, the Washington Post's reporting led to the downfall of President Nixon. In recent months, Facebook accelerated the downfall of governments in the Middle East and Twitter helped to ignite the demonstrations in the last Iranian election.

As digital media starts to consume traditional media, the list below (developed by an unknown author) becomes nostalgic:

"The Easy Guide to Keeping Newspapers and Political News in Perspective"

1. The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country.
2. The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country.
3. The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country, and who are very good at crossword puzzles.
4. USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don't really understand The New York Times. They do, however, like their statistics shown in pie charts.
5. The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn't mind running the country, if they could find the time -- and if they didn't have to leave Southern California to do it.
6. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country.
7. The New York Daily News is read by people who aren't too sure who's running the country and don't really care as long as they can get a seat on the train.
8. The New York Post is read by people who don't care who are running the country as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.
9. The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country, but need the baseball scores.
10. The San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren't sure if there is a country or that anyone is running it; but if so, they oppose all that they stand for. There are occasional exceptions if the leaders are handicapped, minority, feminist, atheist dwarfs who also happen to be illegal aliens from any other country or galaxy, provided of course, that they are not Republicans.
11. The National Enquirer is read by people trapped in line at the grocery store.
12. The Seattle Times is read by people who have recently caught a fish and need something to wrap it in.

For a new generation of information consumers, it's time to update this list with one focused on emerging 21st century media. Here is my take on it:

"A 21st Century Guide to Putting Digital Media and Political News in Perspective"

1. Facebook is used by the people - well, over 600 million people - who unite and start revolutions, especially in the Middle East, when they aren't busy cyberstalking their exes or posting photos from their most recent vacation.
2. Wikileaks is used by the people who want to topple governments but certainly prefer to put power in the hands of dissidents, journalists, mathematicians, and start-up company technologists.
3. Huffington Post is used by a lot of people who support government (when a Democrat is in the White House) and enjoy using this site so they do not have to pay for newspapers.
4. Google is used by people who seek instant gratification for anything they desire - from world peace to Justin Bieber - and believe that the Google ranking system is the closest they get to seeing democracy in action.
5. Wikipedia is used by people who want to learn about the world and governments, but not too much, so they are happy that the information is summarized for them in one place on one page.
6. Twitter is used by people who want to learn about the world in 140 characters or less, except if the tweet is sent by or about Charlie Sheen or Lady Gaga.
7. Craigslist is used by people who just want to change their own world by finding a new apartment or a used car without buying a newspaper for its classifieds.
8. Fandango is used by people who seek an immediate escape from the reality of world crises in the latest blockbuster Hollywood movie and fear their movie may be sold out when they want to see it.
9. Groupon is used by the people who just want to exercise their economic freedom by getting deep discounts ... while watching video clips on YouTube.
10. OpenTable is used by people who care about the state of the world but care more about the financial markets because they eat at restaurants more frequently when we have a bull market.

Each of these web sites has, in some way, either affected journalism today or changed the newspaper's traditional business model. If anything characterizes the newspaper industry, it is change. As this industry evolves, the next serious sources of perspective on political news will hopefully include newspaper web sites.