By Mary Kissel
On 10 June 2009, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart aired a segment in which the show’s correspondent, Jason Jones, toured the New York Times’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. Jones sits at a desk and notes the Times had lost $74m on the quarter and 40% of its advertising revenue to Craigslist. “But even today there are some who still think there’s merit in publishing the news 24 hours after it’s happened”, he editorialises. “Give me one thing in there that happened today”, he asks assistant managing editor Richard Berke, pointing to the printed pages. Berke, a tight-lipped, long-time newsman, is stumped.
Is there a neater summary of the plight of America’s print media? Newspaper titans like the Times enjoyed a privileged position for decades and then the internet arrived. Suddenly the old guard had to compete with (gasp!) websites like the Huffington Post, Politico, and Buzzfeed, with their splashy headlines and tabloid-like reporting styles. And don’t forget Twitter, which makes average Joes journalists too. Between 2005 and 2013, print advertising fell 50%, with much of that business migrating to online publications. Major outlets have slimmed down to a shadow of their former selves (Los Angeles Times) or disappeared altogether (Baltimore Examiner, Tucson Citizen, Kentucky Post, to name a few). There’s even a website to document the decay: newspaperdeathwatch.com.
Cue the inevitable lamentations about the decline of quality journalism and the deleterious, knock-on effects on civil discourse and democracy. Don’t believe the naysayers.
It must first be noted that horror at competition is odd on its face, given it’s an enduring, essential, and central feature of capitalism. It was always going to descend on print media. The only question was when it would reach a critical enough mass to force the management of said publications to do what their online competitors were doing (indeed, had to do) from the get-go — ask what consumers want, when they want it, and how they want it delivered.
This notion will immediately offend the journalism-school complex, erected over the past century to teach aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins that information dissemination is a public service, not a consumer good, and that the two are mutually exclusive. This is the thinking that powers state-backed broadcasters in democracies like Britain and Australia, an oxymoronic concept par excellence. This is also why state media groups will never innovate like their private-sector peers.
Thus the cardinal rule for a financially vibrant, private print media in an internet age: to give away a product is to create infinite demand and zero revenue. The publication I work for, the Wall Street Journal, was lucky to have Peter Kann in the 90s, a publisher who thought gifting online content was a fool’s errand. In 2009, under the new management of Rupert Murdoch, the Journal started charging for mobile content too. The New York Times, Financial Times, and Washington Post conditioned their readers to expect free content, and thus experienced the inevitable grumbling and resistance when the day came that they too had to put a paywall up online.
There’s no indication that print media will suddenly have a grand rebirth and the heady days of pages of classified ads and shareholder notices will return. The paper copies of newspapers may continue to lose money, which is why they should be purchased by owners who can afford to foot the red ink in exchange for the power that a newspaper’s bald-faced headlines afford them.
Again, the journalism school graduates will cry corruption, as if newspapers weren’t invented in the first place as profit-making enterprises with a point of view. As if a modern-day reporter’s biases don’t inform every story he writes, from deciding what to write about, to the sources he contacts, to the details he chooses to include or discard.
What then is quality journalism, of the kind that informs the public, enriches democracy, and tempts readers to buy it? It is above all reliable in its facts and energetic in its pursuit of truth. This requires editors and reporters who can rise above the crowd complex that suffuses so many newsrooms.
What of the intangible asset, the brand? It is indeed harder to build in the proliferating world of blogs, tweets, and online competitors than it is for old-line newspapers like the Washington Posts of the world. For them, the infinite choice consumers have may work to the newspaper’s advantage because consumers recognise them as reliable providers. An online outfit, in contrast, may gain prominence with a single, huge scoop (think Drudge Report and Monica Lewinsky), by building credibility in a single subject area (TechCrunch), or by showing the nerve to challenge the shibboleths that other news outlets won’t (The Blaze). No one wants to read another bland version of bbc.com/news.
The greatest challenge today may be to protect original news products from those who want to steal them. Recall the fight between News Corporation and Google News, an aggregator of original content and provider of backdoors through leaky firewalls, over the listing of the Journal’s proprietary reporting. Insults (“parasite”) were slung, and, eventually, a truce was reached. When both sides have something the other wants — original content versus advertising — there will inevitably be a compromise that satisfies neither side, but prevents mutual destruction. These fights will happen again, perhaps with more frequency, as other news providers figure out they don’t benefit from having their work cannibalised ad infinitum.
News providers are in the extraordinary position of providing a service that has infinite demand, in an era where consumers are being conditioned to expect ever-cheaper prices for products. As in every other competitive industry, consumers will weed out poor quality media and pay for what they value. It will be a long and unpredictable process for many media proprietors, and distinctly uncomfortable for journalists who never before had to compete for readership. But one thing is certain. Those who equate the decline of print media with the end of journalism may just suffer from a lack of imagination and a fear of creative destruction. And there’s nothing new about that.
This article was originally published at The Guardian