Once and Future Newspapers 2!

“Comics Page” in 1895. Mostly written humor with cartoons and illustrations.

A plan devised by Ted Gioia to save newspapers got me irritated for reasons I mentioned in Part I, where I described the rise of the newspaper from the original centuries-old model (Basically a broadside-slash-pamphlet issued by printers as part of their print shop business.) to the first ‘mass media’ dailies borne on the opportunities created by steam press, the telegraph, and the growth of industrial cities. These daily newspapers created the culture of journalists, editors, critics, cartoonists, columnists, and all their other bells and whistles that we associate with newspapers today. These newspapers succeeded phenomenally till the 1950s
when suburbanization, consolidation, and television stopped per-capita growth, but until the 1970s newspapers remained profitable by relying increasingly on their monopoly on commercial and classified advertising. By this time, the business model had switched from selling newspapers to readers to selling readers to advertisers, but they remained solvent till 1990 when the bottom fell out. Why?

The Internet. The part of the story everyone knows is that the internet broke the newspaper monopoly on classified advertising and the rest fell like a house of cards. The problem with this story is, it doesn’t explain where the internet itself came from, why print ads stopped working, and why newspapers couldn’t more effectively go online. (Why are almost all local newspaper homepages so awful?) A major cost for newspapers is the paper, printing, and distribution, so why can’t newspapers create a profitable online presence since that should cut paper, printing, and distribution? And if newspapers can’t pay for themselves online how is the internet able to pay for itself?

Competition from free arts and entertainment weeklies. From time to time I’ve heard ‘real’ newspaper people complain about free papers as a sort of unfair competition. Is there any validity to this? Weekly free independent newspapers took off in many college towns and elsewhere in the 1990s. Since papers had come to rely entirely on advertising to make money, independent publishers realized they might as well not charge for the paper at all. They could give away weekly entertainment papers in boxes at public locations and advertisers would pay to reach the eyeballs. What subscribers there were could be serviced through the postal service since an entertainment weekly didn’t have to get there on a particular morning at a particular time. I’ve heard the argument that with free papers available lazy, selfish, greedy people stopped paying for ‘real’ newspapers. The problem with this argument is that daily newspapers had once thrived in a climate of competition, so weekly papers shouldn’t suddenly be a problem in the 1990s. Reading a weekly entertainment paper no more prevented anyone from also reading a daily paper than buying one album at the record store prevented a music lover from buying other albums. In healthy markets reading a weekly newspaper could be a starter product to a daily. (Think how young people buying futons grow up to buy actual beds.)1

Consolidation. Last time I talked about newspapers buying up one another. This did eventually contribute to their doom. Leveraged buyouts led to corporate pressure for high profits which left publishers skimping on writers in favor of ever-more wire service content and jacked up ad rates. Spending as little as possible on writers contributed to a bland style (that anyone could write even if they were new to town). I remember how the brasher free-lance tone of the entertainment weeklies felt much fresher and more interesting. Ideally, dailies could have hired writers away–and some papers maybe tried that a bit–but they didn’t have or wouldn’t spend the money to go all in. As to the overpriced ad rates, that’s no joke; they more than doubled in that decade.2

Politics. The real straw that broke the camel’s back was not the internet, but the Iraq War, though American elites so fully went along with that criminal fiasco as not to be willing to face its full effects. Except for the Knight-Ridder chain, basically all newspapers went in 100% for the Iraq War, including support for the Patriot Act, and other monstrosities. But many people, especially young people, opposed the war, or realized it was a mistake long before the newspapers seemed to. After the Iraq War I never thought of newspapers in the way I had before. Before that I’d sometimes been frustrated by newspapers. (I remember vividly being appalled at how the New Times‘ Kit Seelye and the Washington Post‘s Ceci Connolly competed over who could lie more about Al Gore during the 2000 election. Horrid people, naturally still respectable among the movers and shakers.) But those seemed exceptions, distortions of our too-long election cycles. The Iraq War made me feel dirty giving money to a daily newspaper (Except for Knight-Ridder but it was soon bought by McClatchy.) The war sent me looking for alternative news and opinion online, and once I found websites and blogs that had a more accurate, moral, and pragmatic view of foreign policy I never went back. I used to see reading a daily newspaper as a part of good citizenship: now I read them as subjects of the Soviet bloc used to read Pravda. The New York Times is a window into how certain classes of people think, but it’s not a reliable window on the world.

You might object that newspapers were always like this and I’m naive to think otherwise. What about newspapers pushing for the Spanish American War? Even in the supposed glory days of the press–Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, etc–wasn’t the New York Times mostly pro-government, pro-war, and even to a large degree pro-Nixon–revisionist legends notwithstanding? All true, but for whatever reason the Times was also willing to publish non-government-friendly content from time to time, and there were newspapers that opposed the Spanish American War. Today, whether due to a lack of resources or a lack of will, that broader spectrum of reporting no longer exists. Sy Hersh who broke the story of the My Lai massacre in the New York Times hasn’t even been mentioned by that paper as he broke the story of U.S. destruction of the Nordstream pipeline in his Substack newsletter. Think of the aftermath of the Iraq War, when various warmongering neocons were not not only not fired, but were inexplicably celebrated as opinion columnists. The Times actually hired Bill Kristol as a columnist after the war was already shown to be fraudulent. Newspapers have simply fused with the national security state.

How? Why? What kind of insanity is it for newspapers which depend on being trusted and liked by readers to become the willing dupes of the government when rightly or wrongly governments are rarely popular and never trusted?

Professionalism. This is the downside of the increase in college-attendance until the college degree became what a high school diploma had once been, and more so of the radical change in how secondary schools and colleges saw their mission.

From the New Deal into the early stages of post-WWII wealth, suburbanization, and the expansion of university education, American schools saw their job as providing universal education as a part of good citizenship–every citizen needed and deserved a solid, well-rounded education so they could live the American dream and America needed an informed public to resist the siren’s song of the dirty commies or goose-stepping fascists. Let us not pretend educators achieved these goals. My point is that that mission changed by the 1980s. Public education transformed into a system for determining the best and the brightest, who by right would rule the country (or administer it for those who ruled it). One of the major buzzwords of this change is professionalism, and suffice it to say professionalism is a poor fit for a product like a newspaper. By the 90s a majority of those responsible for writing, editing, and publishing daily newspapers were not locals who worked up from copy-boy, but college-educated graduates of schools of journalism with few ties to the places where their papers were distributed. This contributed to the style monotony, of course, but even more, college-educated professionals are trained to work to an objective standard that can stand up to critical evaluation by an instructor, not build readership or transition occasional readers into full-time subscribers by creating, exciting and addictive content. They’re thinking in Walter Lippmann, not PT Barnum. They’re emulating the New York Times or Washington Post in style, hoping to win awards, or move to a larger market, and even if they’re conscious of the bottom line, remember their bottom line is advertisers, not readers. To the extent they have any commercial sensibility, it’s riding a local scandal to national prominence, or selling copies by putting a celebrity on the cover. They just don’t know how to create local ‘stars.’ Only the largest city papers seem to promote their talent at all, and even then it’s only the reviewers and pundits. Professionalism means thinking it inappropriate to overly promote reporters. That wouldn’t be objective. Look at the image I used at the top of this post. It’s a newspaper page from 1895; no editor in the U.S. would print undignified content like that in a daily newspaper. The ‘Style’ section of the Post is the closest thing I can think of–and it can be funny and snarky–but it’s just never as middlebrow as the material above, and I can’t imagine any local paper daring even to go that far.

So the product didn’t and doesn’t fit the actual potential market, and those creating the product don’t fit the product. And the internet came along–and it does resemble that page above–and hoovered up the scraps. Then advertisers realized there were far better places to spend their money. And daily newspapers were toast.

So Why Can’t Newspapers Go Online?

A daily physical newspaper is an event. It is created by a process that by its nature has a series of deadlines. Each newspaper once created becomes a permanent artifact that cannot be changed. It arrives at a time and place. You hold it while eating breakfast (or back in the time afternoon dailies) or dinner and afterwards you can use it to line a birdcage.

An internet ‘newspaper’ is more like a place. (That’s why it is called a ‘site’.) Like any public forum content changes constantly and is expected to. Any webpage, whether it’s called a ‘newspaper’ or not, consists of links to other pages, so there’s no way for an online ‘newspaper’ like, say the Guardian to distinguish itself from a news aggregator site like Naked Capitalism besides the reputation of the brand. (And after the Iraq War for many people reputation and branding didn’t work in newspapers’ favor.) The reader isn’t going to use a site that calls itself a newspaper differently than another site. Both are a collection of links you can read anytime in any order, but only when you have an electronic device. So there’s definitely no sense of event but there is a built-in connection. Most newspapers try to build brand loyalty by not linking to outside writers and requiring an email sign-up, and if you feel loyalty to those newspapers this makes sense (they have to make a living, don’t they?), but if you’re skeptical of the newspaper you don’t want to give them your email. I can buy a local physical paper from time to time without subscribing, but an online newspaper requires more of a commitment.

All of that is why from the web’s beginning, aggregator sites, social sites, and individual blogs have fared better than self-contained walled-off content. A couple newspapers with strong brands and lots of money (Times and Post basically) have managed to create viable online versions, but they’re the ‘newspapers of record’ in cities which themselves have national importance and cultural branding, so both papers are basically national newspapers with innate appeal to our nation’s professional classes. That won’t work for local newspapers.

So can any group of people deliver a traditional physical local newspaper every morning to aging suburban baby-boomers with the columnists, reporters, and crosswords they expect while simultaneously developing a different online product that would instill in Gen Y readers enough appreciation and loyalty that they would begin to pay to read it?

No. Way.

But just because our current local daily newspapers have destroyed themselves by going into debt to buy one another, skimping on content, professionalizing, and supporting a criminal war, doesn’t mean there aren’t other possibilities for local news.

Next time we go full circle, remembering how newspapers arose before, and contemplating where their descendants might arise anew.

  1. Sadly, cartels and monopolies rarely realize this since it’s usually in the short-term best interest of whoever runs a monopoly to extract as much as possible and get out while the getting is good. Publishers are currently suing libraries over digital lending, even though all available evidence is that digital lending (and libraries in general) massively help publishers.
  2. https://transition.fcc.gov/osp/inc-report/INoC-1-Newspapers.pdf

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s