The future of technology, media companies, and the disenfranchised

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA


Back in 1982, gifted musician and lyricist Joe Jackson turned out “Night & Day,” which climbed to No. 4 on the U.S. charts thanks in no small part to the sweet and lovely single “Steppin’ Out.”

But it was “T.V. Age” that caught my adolescent imagination, with its bombastic spoken lyrics and clanking musical noises:

“Here we stand
(Remote control buttons in our sweaty little hands)
As one man
(We’re lining up and waiting for someone’s command)

We don’t move
(We send out for food, get the news on video)
I can prove
(There’s no need for movies, we got HBO)
In the T.V. age”

I chuckled listening to the song, my mind’s eye seeing overstuffed couches, Domino’s Pizza boxes, and well-fed families blinded by Group-Think.

No techno-phobe am I — far from it. I love the convenience afforded by my “magic phone,” which my husband asks me to consult when “critical” information is needed (for example, “What were the words to the theme from “Flipper?”). I love using “click-to-purchase” before I can talk myself out of a silky-soft coral coloured swimsuit cover-up impulse buy.

Still, I am at once troubled by and in awe of the mind-boggling technological advances of the sparring e- and traditional + e-retailers and Wal-Mart.

“Amazon wrecked the mall. Now it’s coming for the grocery store,” trumpets a June 18 headline on

“Amazon’s Move Signals End of Line for Many Cashiers,” reads The New York Times on June 17.

“Can Wal-Mart Compete With Amazon and Make Money?” asked The Motley Fool on February 27.

We shoppers are an impatient lot. We want selection, we want competitive prices, we want to belong to exclusive “clubs” promising free shipping or, better yet, delivery to our doors within the hour.

But where does this leave media companies, that stand to collectively lose billions of dollars in grocery and consumer packaged goods inserts and coupons and (already waning) ROP advertising?

Of course, this decline is well under way. Years ago, savvy chains began developing mobile and digital couponing solutions, and CPG companies started using data to reach their customers right on the device of their choice.

And, more importantly, if you’re considering greater implications beyond how people receive products and news, there’s a downside to innovation. I can’t help but feel the fabric of our society is further ripped apart, as the haves swoop in to pick up their drive-thru groceries or wait for curb-side delivery of prescription medications while the have-nots are left, literally, in the dust.

It’s true that the vast majority of Americans — 95% — own a cellphone of some kind, according to Pew Research Center. Its January 2017 research shows that the share of Americans who own smartphones is now 77%, up from 35% in Pew’s first survey of smartphone ownership in 2011.

Pew’s 2017 research indicates the pool of those who own smartphones is well populated with college graduates (89%) and higher earning status of US$75,000+ (93%). The vast majority of smartphone owners are in either the 18- to 29-year-old age range or the 30- to 49-year-old range. In other words, a marketer’s dream pool.

As businesses rightfully follow and, in some cases, lead technological trends that make life smoother and easier for those who have the means to shop and consume media in sophisticated ways, what are the broader implications for those who do not have those means?

Lower-income seniors still need food. Lower-income parents still need to know what vaccinations are required for their children to attend school. Low-skilled people still need jobs in positions such as cashiers or as part of distribution chains. Not everyone has solid enough financial history to secure the credit cards necessary to purchase things online simply and easily.

On the one hand, automation and whiz-bang technology is music to the ears of those who inhabit the C-suite. For example, automated Amazon “stores” currently in test phases would reportedly only require three employees at a time, according to a February 5 New York Post story by Josh Kosman.

Robots upstairs would grab and sack up items for shoppers downstairs wielding smartphones as “I want that” click-it devices. Bagged-up purchases would be sent downstairs via “dumbwaiter’’-like conveyors, and shoppers would be on their merry way.

“With the bare-bones payroll, the boost to profits could be huge,” the story continues. “Indeed, the prototype being discussed calls for operating profit margins north of 20%. That compares with an industry average of just 1.7%, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Labor accounts for the lion’s share of a supermarket’s operating costs. In 2015, the industry employed 3.4 million workers nationwide, with an average grocery store employing 89 workers to generate annual sales of more than US$2 million, according to the trade group.”

Added New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller, in the June 17 article, “For a long time, economists argued that routine jobs like factory and clerical work were vulnerable to automation but that jobs in both the service and knowledge sectors were safer. They require human skills that are hard for machines to imitate, like judgment and adaptability. These skills are useful when an executive makes strategic business decisions or when a chef fries one customer’s egg and scrambles another’s.

“But it has become increasingly clear that parts of every job will be automated — and that the service sector is next. Although certain service jobs like health aide or preschool teacher still seem safe, others, like those in retail and food service, are already being displaced. It’s not hard to teach a machine to do routine tasks like scanning bar codes, stocking shelves, or dunking fries in oil.”

Of course, on the other hand, fewer jobs in fact cuts into the shopping needs of those newly unemployed. This, in turn, means less retail spending volume from this particular end of the income demographic scale. And when people spend less on food, they perhaps spend less on paying news media companies for content and subscriptions so media companies, too, can kiss that demographic goodbye.

But will we miss them? Some might argue (as every marketer has, and I raise my own hand) that it’s always been about audience. We want people who will pay to consume news and information; our advertisers want people who can pay for their products and services.

As we become more niche-y with our news, do we not in fact contribute to the demise of an informed society. And, if so, do we have a responsibility to somehow serve the informational needs of those who aren’t in a desirable demographic?

“The disenfranchised don’t buy newspapers,” a snotty former editor I once knew snapped, at an executive retreat we both attended years ago. This in response to a question I’d raised there in the context of product development aimed at “desirable” audiences. What about the disenfranchised?

What about them indeed. I don’t have an answer, but I can’t lie. I don’t want to be part of a scorned societal group years from now, when today’s toddlers are grown-ups and ask, “Why didn’t someone think hard about who was getting left behind in the age of technological advancement?”

I’m afraid the shameful answer will lie in part tied to what my dear departed father used to call “good old American greed.”

Or it may lie in the angst-y lyrics of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” which enjoyed great success on U.S. charts and also won a Grammy:

“We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now theyre laughing at our face
Saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money’

About Kathleen Coleman

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