How the Internet (and Advertisers) Killed Journalism

Newspaper stands by wili_hybrid
Newspaper stands by wili_hybrid

The Atlantic has a must-read essay from James Warren, “When No News Is Bad News” (h/t @guykawasaki), that does an excellent job of putting into perspective how the Internet played a role in the death spiral of newspapers. Most interestingly, he makes it crystal clear how precarious the road ahead is for real journalism’s survival as a result, while calling bloggers out on their exaggerated self-importance and understated reliance on traditional media.

Newspapers have been and remain by far the largest source of news coverage and analysis in any city or town. Without the local paper, the TV and radio stations would be in difficult shape, despite the good work they often do. The most popular websites—Yahoo, the Drudge Report, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, the Huffington Post, you name it—also rely heavily on the work of newspapers, more often than not appropriating and linking to their stories without providing a penny in payment. As I write, the headline on the lead Huffington Post story is about the Bush administration “Burrowing Political Appointees into Career Civil Service Positions.” Upon closer inspection, this Huffington Post Story turned out to be a truncated version of what was in fact a quite interesting Washington Post story. (And upon even closer inspection, the actual story made clear that this had been common practice among all administrations in their final days and cited about 50 examples of the Bill Clinton administration doing the same thing.)

The cooption of that Post story serves as a clear reminder of the extent to which newspapers serve as daily tip sheets for other media outlets. The Chicago Tribune has—or at least had—many more reporters and editors than all the TV stations and radio stations in town combined. Far more than CNN or Fox or CBS or ABC News. Traditionally, it brought in $100 million to $200 million more in revenue annually than all Chicago’s radio stations put together. But now a stunning decline in advertising revenue has broken the traditional business model for all papers. (There were weeks in the early part of 2008 when the Tribune began to fall behind conservative weekly revenue projections by more than $1 million. And in seemingly no time, its editorial department has gone from 650 employees to about 470.)

Classified ads, once the mainstay of newspaper advertising, are scarce—headed to Craigslist.com and other websites, where you can place your ad for free or for pennies. Other key advertising categories, notably auto and real estate, have also plummeted. Meanwhile, the price of newsprint is skyrocketing, despite declining demand.

The combination of a one-legged business model (expensive advertising), devaluation of their content (dirt-cheap subscriptions), and an ill-conceived approach to the Internet that devalued their content even further (by giving it all away for free) created a perfect storm that will continue to capsize an alarming number of venerable news-gathering institutions over the next couple of years. Magazines, of course, are also feeling the effects of this storm, many for the exact same reasons.

Warren illustrates the stupidity of giving away content for free in a way that’s difficult to argue with and lays some of the blame on the ego of journalists themselves:

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are among those organizations that have spent many millions of dollars covering the Iraq War, with each outlet paying for multiple reporters, translators, full-time drivers, guards, bullet-proof armored cars, year-round office space, office managers, and security consultants with intelligence backgrounds to provide threat assessments. And all of them give that work away for free online.

A friend of mine who was at dinner with a top Times executive asked why the paper had stopped walling off and requiring paid subscriptions for some of its online content. One factor, the executive said, was that a prominent columnist had voiced chagrin about fewer people reading his work. My friend wonders why, if the paper was giving away the columnist’s work for free, it shouldn’t have had him work for free. Perhaps he’s got a point.

Ironically, The Atlantic itself is guilty of this very same practice, making available online, for free, the full contents of every issue of the magazine I just renewed my paid subscription to for three years, making me feel like a bit of a sucker. (They claim access is limited to subscribers only, but I’ve never had to log in to view anything listed on their Back Issues page. I’d love to be proven wrong about it.)

I’m all for supporting real journalism, and The Atlantic is one of my favorite sources for long-form journalism by far (not to mention Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ excellent blogs), but it’s not a non-profit company, and as I noted a few years back in reference to the comic book industry, and as Warren concludes his piece, I don’t know if there are “enough people out there who care whether the light of serious journalism is allowed to fail?”

Honestly, I don’t think so.

13 thoughts on “How the Internet (and Advertisers) Killed Journalism

  1. Newspapers put their content online for free, because practice has shown that people just aren’t willing to pay to read newspapers online. And publications’ websites generate money – through advertising, through brand awareness – these days they’re just not taken seriously without a web presence. And you can’t have a web presence without content.

    There are lots of print publications that don’t charge consumers at all, making all their money from advertising. But it’s not really accurate to say they’re “giving it away for free”, because obviously that content is paying for itself somewhere. There is also almost no direct link between the amount a publication charges for access to its content, and what the writers get paid for it.

  2. Part of the reason studies show people won’t pay for content is that many of the studies (in my understanding) were done after respected news organizations had already stopped charging online.
    It almost goes without saying that online advertising is tremendously cheaper than print advertising; I regret I don’t have figures, but I know it to be true.
    In short: fine, online news isn’t given away 100% free, but it might as well be, and the decision was foolish.

  3. Actually, the content isn’t really paying for itself somewhere. Online ads cost much less than print ads. From what I hear the online side of the house is a loss leader, i.e. used to gain readership. How many online newspaper ads do readers actually click on? If you’re like me, few if any.

    Newspapers did not exactly choose to give it away for free. Not until they realized that they were losing readership. Initially they simply chose to ignore the Internet. By the time they woke up it was too late to set the tone. There is a lot of truth in the old adage that the only thing people are willing to pay for online is sex and gambling.

    I rememner when the New York Times’ attempted to get people to pay for “Select” content. The columnists were right, they did see a big drop in their readership. People found other columnists to read. Eventually the NYT had to abandon the effort, not so much due to egos, but because they were losing readers. I heard the only thing people were willing to pay for was the cross word puzzle. So make that sex, gambling, and cross word puzzles.

    The really sad thing is that free and open societies depend on a strong free press. I hope and pray the newspapers find some business model that will work. We cannot afford to lose them.

    You know, what is sort of interesting is that the Wall Street Journal continues to be a paid online service. It’s a niche market though (important, but niche). I wonder how they are doing compared with the rest of the pack?
    ~jon

  4. Hmm. Ever think that by ripping off several hundred of Warren’s (and the Atlantic’s) words for your own blog, which you apparently aim to profit from, you might represent the problem?

    Next time, try posting about an article without quoting it at such length. At least you might send an interested reader to the site of the institution that actually paid for the work.

    Just a thought!

  5. Aaron: Did you actually click through and read the full three-page article before assuming I clipped too much of it? Also, as I noted, I pay for my subscription to The Atlantic, so I feel pretty comfortable with the small portion of the article I clipped, attributed, linked to and explicitly stated be read in full. And if you really think I’m trying to profit from this blog, as opposed to just trying to be snarky, you’ve clearly stopped by for the first time and have no clue about me at all.

    PS: Kudos on both ASSME and your new job. Best of luck!

  6. Guy,

    You’re right, I’m a first time visitor to your blog. And whether you’re profiting financially or emotionally or reaping some other benefit, I’ll stick by my main point. It’s time for all bloggers who care about the future of the media to take a serious look at how their practices are contributing to the problem. Clipping the most essential parts of a story for their own use is not cool. There are other ways to comment on an article.

    As a rule of thumb, why not limit quotations to bits you’re willing to actually type out? Anytime you actually wind up cutting-and-pasting, you’re taking too much.

    Remember, this debate isn’t happening in a vacuum. As you well know, it’s happening at a time when aggregation sites like Huff Po, which has made a business model out of stealing great chunks of news stories for its own pages, are thriving, and the institutions we depend on to actually report news are in danger of being lost altogether.

    Sorry about my tone but I think we all need to do a better job of making sure we’re not inadvertently contributing the the problem.

    Thanks for your kind words about ASSME. I’ve been hearing from a lot of laid off journalists, so this is an issue that’s become really important to me.

    Aaron

  7. Aaron: Thanks for coming back and elaborating on your initial comment. Point taken, and I think we’re pretty much on the same page here. I think the business model for publishing is irreparably broken; the big daily newspapers are going to have explore the non-profit route, while magazines are going to have start providing more value to subscribers in order to justify higher subscription rates in print and online, because right now advertisers have the upper hand and, as I’m sure you’d agree, that’s bad for journalism across the board.

  8. Hello,

    That was my photo you “borrowed” to illustrate this post with, and it is Copyright All Rights Reserved, you didn't obtain my permission to use it, nor did you compensate me.

    So you might want to add “photography” to your list of things being killed by the internet.

    Thank you!

  9. Maproom: I only post images from Flickr that have “Blog This” activated, which yours did at the time. I also include full credit and link back to the Flickr page. Now that you've changed your permissions for the photo, I'll happily replace it. No harm, no foul.

  10. That's an interesting discussion; I'm surprised The Consumerist was so tone-deaf at first. The “Blog This” piece isn't nearly as obvious as what they were doing, but as noted before, your image has been removed. Thanks for the link!

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