The Decline of “Mainstream” Media

“Mainstream” is not just a go-to pejorative thrown around by would-be hipsters to dismiss anything they happen to look down on as too square for their nonconformist tastes, it is also (more accurately) a term applied to any item or medium that is considered to be the dominant venue in its respective field.  When referring to the mainstream media, the medium normally being discussed is one that encompasses the major cable news channels, the major national and local newspapers, and several independent news outlets that are easily recognizable to the average viewer.  Therefore, conventional wisdom implies that, by virtue of owning the “mainstream” label, these media sources are the dominating outlets in the news business.  However true this may have been even a solid decade ago, the fact is that–as far as the younger generation of viewers is concerned (the demographic whose choices determine the longevity of any product’s lifespan)–what is still being popularly referred to as the mainstream media is anything but dominating as the medium of choice for information amongst the greater public.

Although there are still a couple of stubborn people insisting that the old-fashioned newspapers are the only real form of information for the sophisticated consumer, the reality is that this is nothing more than the pompous musings of a few hardliners who won’t face the fact that their favored medium is–if not dead–very much on life-support in the technologically advanced parts of the world.  Furthermore, the favored stereotype of newspapers being a “purer” and more reliable media alternative is nonsense to begin with on account that, just like any other source of information, newspapers will range in tone and perspective depending on whoever happens to be their owner (or main financier) at the moment.  TV news sources, though still able to garner a semi-decent audience, is experiencing a similar decline in ratings, and for the same reason: their main demographic is expected to be dying off in the next decade or two.  And younger audiences aren’t turning on their TVs to set off the loss.

Nowadays, online media alternatives are the favored choice of almost everybody in their 30s and under (this trend is also true for a noteworthy portion of older consumers, too).  The reason for the shift away from the standard medium format to web-based content is simply a matter of efficiency.  No longer do we need to sit through an entire program to get the information relevant to our interests, we can just search for the bits and pieces we need and go about our day in no time.  Neither TV news shows, nor newspapers, can provide this level of viewer-freedom, as their format is too rigid to provide that scope of flexibility for their audience base.  Thus, as inferred by all predictive models, the internet is becoming the dominant media source for the global public-at-large.  Yet, despite this commonly accepted shift in the zeitgeist, the term “mainstream” is still being reserved exclusively for a declining media format; with seemingly no current push for the term to be amended to include the increasingly more popular online media outlets.

The reality is that news outlets are business conglomerates.  And the goal of business conglomerates is to make money (this is not a condemnation, but simply a statement of fact).  A lot of money goes into producing a TV news program, making the venue a primary point of interest to advertisers whose goal is to reach potential consumers (again, no condemnation on my part ought to be read into the text here).  In contrast, websites are relatively cheap to set up, and the simpler templates usually don’t take much effort or tech-knowledge to maintain.  Sure, to make money off your website you’ll need to share space with advertisers, however the easy accessibility to partnering with Google for generating automatic ad revenue lifts the burden of having to actually find investors and advertisers for the content-creator; who’s left to just focus on posting the relevant information for her/his audience, at a relatively quick and steady pace.

Over the last few years [decade], advertisers have taken notice of the rise in web-media, and have taken steps to ensure their presence is not overlooked by the more popular medium (notice the sharp increase in ads at the beginning and end of the more popular YouTube videos, compared to a few years back).  However, given that the average internet user is more tech-savvy than the standard ad generator, getting around having to watch these tiresome commercials is as little as a few keystrokes away (i.e. ad blocker).  Therefore, TV remains the primary medium by which businesses get to reach potential consumers, which is why that’s where the majority of the money will go.  But people aren’t watching TV like they used to (in that, we’re no longer dependent on it as our main source of information).  TV media outlets are seen as archaic, and slow, and impersonal; yet, they are still called “mainstream” because that’s where their advertisement base resides; therefore, it is of the utmost importance for advertisers to promote the idea that the venues they have the most influence over are the more legitimate media sources.  And until we reach the point where online alternatives can generate an equal or greater amount of consistent and steady ad revenue for potential financiers (many of the more recognizable online news outlets are moving/have moved in this direction already), the term mainstream media will remain largely a convenient marketing strategy to boost the relevance of a fading medium, due to the revenue it generates for its advertisers; regardless of how much its viewership and influence drops in favor of more efficient alternatives.  Their lack of prominence and trust among the general audience is immaterial to the conversation.

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