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Congratulations, Scott Pelley! But Now You’re a Failure

Daniel Gross
Fin - Daniel Gross - US

On Tuesday, CBS named network veteran Scott Pelley to replace Katie Couric as anchor of the CBS Nightly News. After nearly thirty years in the business, and 22 years at CBS, the Texas native has been granted one of the most coveted posts in American journalism, one that comes with an audience and salary of millions.

Great work! You're a star! Congratulations on all your success! Oh, and from here on out, you're a failure.

That was certainly the curse that befell the woman he's replacing, Katie Couric. At NBC's Today show for 15 years, Couric could do no wrong. Once she ascended to the CBS anchor chair, however, she became the overpaid ($15 million per year) symbol of a chronically-underperforming, audience-losing franchise. Sadly, this is the cruel fate to be suffered by late-baby boomer, old media big shots.

These men and women, born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, did extraordinarily well in their 30s and 40s. But they are finding themselves elevated to top spots just in time to preside over sharp cuts in staff, circulation, revenue — and, ultimately, in influence. And unlike their forebears, they won't have the option of going out on top. The media narrative surrounding their careers, generally written by people less successful and less well-paid than them, will depict what should be great triumphs as the end of success.

At CBS, a fresh face and changes in the format couldn't halt the ratings slide. And while the number of news consumers is growing each year, the audience of blue-chip mass media is declining in relative and absolute terms. The Pew Center reports that in 2010, the three network evening newscasts lost 752,000 viewers, or 3.4 percent of their audience. As a great long-term chart in Pew's 2011 State of the Media Report shows, "since 1980, the three commercial evening newscasts have lost 28.9 million viewers, or 55.5 percent of the audience they once had." The Wall Street Journal notes that the three newscasts reel in 23.2 million people per evening, but that's off 21 percent from ten years ago. With each passing year, a portion of the older audience — the average age of a regular evening news watcher in 2010 was 53 — dies or loses the capacity or interest to tune in. And younger viewers simply aren't picking up the habit. (If you're under 25 and watch a nightly newscast at least three time per week, send me an email. I'll buy you a cappuccino.)

The falling viewership translates to less money, less advertising, smaller staffs, and a smaller imprint on the culture. Remember, the declining audiences are coming in the context of significant population growth.

Pelley believes he can turn things around. As he told Brian Stelter of the New York Times: "We're going to lift this thing, and we're all going to do it together. Everybody's shoulder is going to go into this. And that's the only way it's possible." But unless he can figure out a way to turn off the Internet and make the cable news channels go dark, it's hard to see how the thing can be lifted. There's a lot of momentum in those long-term charts. And it's difficult to see how his tenure will end any differently than Katie Couric's did.

Of course, Pelley will share this fate with many of his peers. Brian Williams, who took over the NBC Nightly News from Tom Brokaw in December 2004, has seen that show's audience decline. The upper echelons of Manhattan's media world are filled with people who go to work every day (usually in Town Cars) knowing that a few years from now, they probably won't have the resources, the staff, the reach and impact that they have today. CNN can garner huge audiences when big news happens. But it's hard to see how Piers Morgan will do significantly better than Larry King did over the long term. (There are plenty of other unctuous celebrity interviewers out there.) Ten years ago, running NBC was like running the Yankees — a money-minting, highly respected champion year in and year out. Now? It's more like helming the Orioles. In the first quarter of 2011, NBC Broadcast division's revenues were down 35 percent from the year-before quarter, thanks largely to a post-Olympics drop-off in ad spending. The network eked out a mere $20 million in operating cash flow.

Five years ago, running DVD sales or a big Hollywood studio was a plum job. Today, it's like being captain of the Titanic. The editors of big-time newspapers and magazines are in the same boat. Big newspapers are now midsized ones. Daily circulation at the Boston Globe in September 2010 was about 223,000, less than half of what it was in 2004. Fortune has largely maintained its circulation, but the magazine's staff has been scythed in half and in 2009 its frequency was reduced from 25 times per year to 18. And so on. In many instances, rising to the top of the masthead simply prepares you for being taken down a few notches.

The reality for Pelley, and for many magazine and newspaper editors, is that the best to be hoped for is not to lose more readers, subscriptions, and advertisers. In old media, flat is very much the new up. The advantages of having a great journalistic legacy (23 million people — a huge number — tune in to nightly newscasts each night) are now balanced by the burdens of legacy costs.

That's not to say that anchor jobs like the one Pelley just ascended to aren't desirable, high-paying or difficult to get. Or that being tapped for a top job isn't an enormous accomplishment. Getting one of these jobs means you'll be famous, get paid more than you ever imagined, and travel the world covering a lot of stories. But amid the triumphs, the larger story will be one of a shrinkage in staff, audience, and prestige. As other businesses and media outlets grow, you'll be left making a case for relevance. In a perverse way, many of those who have succeeded the most in the media are simply being set up for failure. And, as Walter Cronkite used to say, that's the way it is.

Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance

Email him at grossdaniel11@yahoo.com; folllow him on Twitter @grossdm