The Internet strikes again. Once again, the massive global interconnected collective of cat videos and status updates has revolutionized a keystone of society. This time, it’s newspapers. And once again, nobody really knows whether it’s going to be good or bad in the long term. The Internet is confusing, the future even more so. However, there’s one thing that can be easily determined from current digital trends: Big Newspapers are in for it.
These days, it’s pretty common knowledge that print journalism is a dying breed. It’s simply cheaper to use the Internet as a distribution method, and as its usage becomes more and more common, and people become more digitally literate, it will only go further. Younger generations don’t, and won’t have the attention span to leaf through a massive hunk of dead tree once a day, or the cash in their wallets to want to pay for a subscription. The world is a swiftly moving organism, and people in it desire an equally swift method of viewing it, in order to keep up with live events as they expand and develop, without having to wait for carefully crafted articles sent out once a day. The reading of print journalism has been steadily declining since 1999. The national percentage of daily newspaper readers has been falling about 3% each year in almost every age group – even the elderly. Print advertising has gone down almost 50% in the last 5 year or so. The age of the physical newspaper is coming to a close. The future doesn’t have room for slow things.
Even the relatively recent, once-massive realm of cable TV news is on a downward trend, with the three biggest cable companies, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC all dropping 11% on average in viewership over the past several years. It still relies on delivering its message in large, clunky packages, unlike the nimble compartmentalization of the web.
Now, you might be thinking “but wait a minute, this doesn’t necessarily spell the death for big news. Newspapers can just move to the Internets! I read an online article on the New York Times just yesterday!” It’s true, the great majority of large newspapers have moved online in some capacity, offering articles up for free to people with Internet connections. There are some significant consequences to this, however. And I’m not just talking about a substantial increase in stupid personality quizzes, or the idiotic vitriol that usually gets posted in the comments section. I’m talking about advertising, more specifically, why big newspapers have had to lay off over 25% of their staff in the past decade and a half or so. Advertising is by far the largest source of revenue for newspaper companies, which is why you’d think that moving to a subscription-free medium wouldn’t utterly kill their profits. But here’s the thing. There’s a saying in journalism these days “dollars in print, dimes on the Internet, pennies on mobile”. Basically, Internet advertising doesn’t make that much money, even after the industry had over a decade to adapt to using it. It has limited effectiveness, advertisers don’t want to pay more for it, and a lot of the revenue goes towards companies like Google and Yahoo, instead of the newspapers themselves. To top it off, companies these days prefer to use smaller websites to put their advertisements, and have a lot greater power to independently market their material without latching on to something else. So, while advertising revenue has gone up overall over the past several years, it simply isn’t profitable enough to hold up newspaper companies on its own. And it’s showing. Net advertising revenue for daily newspapers has gone down, from $49 billion in 2006 to $22 billion in 2012, more than a 50% drop, in only 6 years – even counting money made from the Internet. Gannet, the world’s largest newspaper chain, has its net revenues down by 1/3, and its profits down by twice that number. The New York Times, despite being hailed by many as one of the top newspapers in the world, has had its revenue and profits down more than 30% between 2009 and 2013, and the trend is only continuing. In many ways, the Internet encourages decentralization, and compartmentalization, something that big news companies can’t do easily. And without ad revenue, they’ll be falling behind the curve soon enough. Thankfully, The Radar doesn’t run off of advertising, or actually make money, so its shift to the Internet doesn’t need to fear the same decay that eats at other, larger newspapers.
Of course, this also means that smaller, more individualized news outlets will step up. Though this means that some of us will be getting our information exclusively from Tumblr, I personally think it’s a good thing. Big Cable Companies can be, well, manipulative, and often have many, many conflicts of interest, wanting to maintain high profits for all the products they sell. And their coverage of news can easily lead to homogeneity in public discourse. Blogs, and other personalized methods of journalism can give the people an outlet for communication that they didn’t have previously, and add greater diversity to intellectual discussion in the public. Individuals will be silenced less. Of course, that means they’re going to have to use their newfound voices. It can be difficult to organize crowd-sourced information gathering, even when it’s on the Internet. Even relatively well-designed sites like Reddit can fall prey to disorganized, unsubstantiated demagogy, such as when they inaccurately claimed to have found the Boston Bomber. There are admittedly a lot of challenges to decentralized news, but I think that the pros ultimately outweigh the cons. And I certainly won’t be sorry to see Fox News kick the bucket. Big Newspapers are in the midst of a gradual, inevitable decline. It’s time for people to step up, and fill the journalistic hole that will result.