By Dom Serafini

Last spring, the Los Angeles Times ran a story titled, “Mainstream media in a digital panic,” explaining: “many of the people who direct mainstream newspaper and television coverage are in a panic over the migration of readers and viewers to the Internet.”

In order to stop the hemorrhaging of readers and viewers, the mainstream media (a.k.a., the “old” media) is copycatting what the “new” media does: basically focusing on gossip and sex. Sports, money and politics are also covered, but colored with the aforementioned spins: meaning political news is worthy of coverage only if it is part of a scandal.

This reminds me of what destroyed Italian music. When singers such as Domenico Modugno (Volare) and songwriters such as Edoardo Di Capua (’O Sole Mio or, in Elvis Presley’s rendition, It’s Now or Never) faded away, the new generation lacked the creativity of the old guard and thus started to copycat the popular music coming from the U.S. and the U.K. Unfortunately mimicking the big English and American pop-stars and expecting success only because it was in Italian did not work out. Thus began the decline of the sector internationally and domestically. Today, only 15 percent of the songs played on Italian radio stations is Italian.

Going back to the “old” media, it surprises me, for example, when a resourceful newspaper such as The New York Times insists on covering the same sports that other papers cover better and ignore sports –– such as football (soccer in the U.S.) –– which are gaining more followers in the U.S. and are not covered by competing publications. The Times nickname is “The Gray Lady,” and, apparently, its management wants to continue to gray it rather than shine.

Another problem that I see with “old” media is how untruthful it has become by insisting on keeping reporters and editors who totally kissed up to the Bush Administration, thus providing a disservice to their readers and viewers. We’ve reached a point where even Hollywood can castigate “old” media, by saying that “With our films on Iraq, we’re doing what the press should have done.” Plus, just because supermarket tabloid Weekly World News trumpets on the front cover that “Alien Backs Arnold For Governor!” does that mean CBS Evening News has to do the same to keep viewers?

CBS Evening News with Katie Couric has lost seven percent of the newscast’s viewers since she took over a year ago, because she introduced “soft” news. On the other hand, ABC World News with Charles Gibson gained three percent. Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather commented that corporate ownership has resulted in celebrity news taking the place of in-depth investigation. Naturally, the news has lost audiences. But even readers of WWN, which in the 1980s reached 1.2 million, are now finding more outrageous stories on the Web, putting the tabloid out of business.

Broadcasters are now tumbling upon each other trying to get on the MySpace and YouTube bandwagons without a clear reason (aside from the fact that all the others are doing it!) instead of making them linger in their waiting rooms. Clear Channel dumped its TV stations out of digital panic and Tribune is contemplating doing the same, without considering –– as Internet pioneer Mark Cuban has stated –– that consumers like to watch television, especially on a 70-inch set, so there is no need for broadcasters to rush into anything.

It is obvious that the Internet revolution has changed the rules of the game, but not the game itself. The changes, however, are not just limited to broadcasters and print media. Ad agencies are also puzzled as to best way to organize to face the digital future. And what about the fight in the U.S. between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Writers Guild of America, which has been called a “jihad” (holy war)? Indeed, digital is changing the residual model (initiated by radio in the 1930s when tape was introduced). Now, according to the new view, talent is entitled to an initial fee and nothing more. The copyright for content automatically belongs to the entity that puts up the cash to make it.

Because digital media is disorienting, broadcasters are unable see how this new media can help them. The “old” media sees growth in the digital area and decline in its traditional business. In a panic, the “old” media is trying to emulate the music industry by joining the revolution and at the same time, fighting it. This strategy, which was a losing proposition from the beginning, has brought on Warner Music’s Edgar Bronfman’s statement: “The music industry is growing, the record industry is not growing.”

I really don’t understand this “panic.” After all it’s a contest between professionals and amateurs. Something like 60 percent of the Internet content consumed by young users has been created by friends. Basically we are talking about an age of amateurship. An age in which amateurs are allowed to obfuscate the minds of media pros.

Even this siphoning off of revenues has no solid basis. While the overall U.S. population, for example, consumes more than 15 percent of its daily media online, the Internet accounts for only about six percent of total media dollars spent.

The “old” media should definitely leverage the “new” media to grow, but only by maintaining its values, standards and quality; and there are plenty of ways to do it. For the “old” media, copycatting the “new” media makes it awkward, unoriginal and out of place, not to mention out of viewers… which is exactly what happened to the Italian music industry.

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