False Dichotomies and the Death of Print

by on July 2, 2009 · 10 comments

My friend Megan McArdle has a sharp post on the causes of the newspaper’s imminent demise:

Journalism is not being brought low by excess supply of content; it’s being steadily eroded by insufficient demand for advertising pages. For most of history, most publications lost money, or at best broke even, on their subscription base, which just about paid for the cost of printing and distributing the papers. Advertising was what paid the bills. To be sure, some of that advertising is migrating to blogs and similar new media. But most of it is simply being siphoned out of journalism altogether. Craigslist ate the classified ads. eHarmony stole the personals. Google took those tiny ads for weird products. And Macy’s can email its own damn customers to announce a sale…

We’re not witnessing the breakup of a monopoly, in which more players make more modest incomes providing more stuff, and everyone flourishes (except the monopolist). We’re witnessing the death of a business model. And no one has figured out how to pay for hard news. Hard news stories take a great deal of time to write–more time than most amateurs can afford, which is why blogs tend to do opinion rather than journalism. Moreover, they are at least greatly improved when their authors are not worried about losing their jobs if what they write pisses off a local power broker.

I think there’s a lot to this: a key part of the newspaper’s business model was that economies of scale made them one of the very few efficient ways of distributing small pieces of printed information to a lot of people. So lots of different kinds of content—classified ads, personal ads, display ads, and various kinds of news reporting—got bundled together and sold as one package. The Internet makes it cheap to distribute information of all kinds, and so the newspaper is getting disaggregated. And so some of the cross-subsidies that supported the traditional newspaper are going away.

So the death of the classified is one important cause of newspapers’ worsening business model. But it’s also true that newspapers are “being brought low by excess supply of content.” The websites of mainstream media outlets run display ads, and these ads generate revenues. They don’t generate enough revenue to cover the costs of producing content, but that’s simply a function of supply and demand: if there were fewer online news sources, the ones that were left would be able to command higher rates. This is easy to see with the following thought experiment: imagine if the government granted the New York Times a monopoly in the news reporting business, so that no other media outlet were permitted to provide news online. Under those circumstances, the Times would be insanely profitable. They’d have tens of millions of daily readers and be able to charge outrageous amounts of money for their display ads.

Each traditional outlet that goes out of business makes the others a little more profitable. Eventually, the market will reach an equilibrium–if necessary, with dramatically fewer news outlets and higher revenues for each one. But there’s no “death of a business model” here. The newspapers have always given away content in order to sell ads. The news websites of the future will do the same thing. There just may be fewer of them than there were in the past.

The part I think Megan is ignoring is that the while it’s often true that hard news stories take a “great deal of time to write,” the Internet has made the process much easier for many types of news. Most obviously, the laborious process of editing and typesetting stories on strict deadlines is being replaced by much more flexible editing using web-based content management systems. Many primary sources (court decisions, regulatory filings, government data) that once required a physical trip to obtain can now be downloaded off the web. Reporters also have access to a vast new universe of primary sources from user-generated media that simply didn’t exist in the past.

It’s possible that the absolute number of reporters doing “hard news” in the future will be lower than it was in the past. And certainly the next decade will be a tough one for print journalists. But there’s nothing fundamentally broken about the “give away content, sell ads” business model. And we’re not heading toward a dystopian future in which no one produces hard news.

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