The internet has brought about massive change, both for the good and, in the eyes of many, for the bad. Fake news and echo chambers have damaged civic discourse, and newspapers all around the world are shutting down. Newspaper publishers saw the arrival of the technology not as a benefit, but as a threat. Newspapers have suffered as a result in recent decades. This did not have to be the case, however, but their attitude and approach toward the internet made it so.
The long decline of print journalism
The internet, though, was not the first threat to the newspaper business. Back in the 50s, with the arrival of television and news bulletins, many predicted that people would move away from reading newspapers, and rely instead on TV.
Though there was a decline, with penetration of newspapers dropping from over 100% for daily editions (where people would buy more than one paper each on average), there was still robust enough demand to sustain many high quality newspapers. There were technological and convenience reasons for the continued success of many papers; it was impractical to lug around a television everywhere you wanted to consume the news, but journalism also doubled down on what it was good at.
The high point for print journalism came about in the 70s, with the investigation by Woodward and Bernstein into the Watergate scandal, which brought down the Nixon presidency. Published by the Washington Post, this was the type of long term investigative reporting which was not done by television reporters. Print journalism had an edge, and used it.
Woodward and Bernstein: A high-water mark?
The response to the internet was not nearly as encouraging. With less and less people buying print editions and getting their news online, rather than commit to the long term, forensic investigations, like those of Woodward and Bernstein, newspapers put out stories with sensationalist and click bait headlines. Instead of investing in journalists, the size of newsrooms is decreasing with each and every year. Careercast surveys over the past few years have consistently placed the job of newspaper journalist as one of the worst jobs you could take up, manly because prospects and opportunities are shrinking. In 1978 there were over 43,000 journalists in America. By 2015 that figure had dropped to 33,000. That is 15,000 less journalists serving a much larger population.
These cost cutting exercises may make sense in a world where audience figures are declining, but the opposite is true. The demand for news is rising, though now many are getting their content through aggregators, like Reddit, or social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. Newspapers have pivoted toward low effort content, with intriguing headlines, which drive a lot of eyeballs to their sites. This is good for advertising revenue, but not great for journalism.
Another approach to the possibilities and threats of the internet is to serve a niche. More and more publications online are focusing in on a small audience and serving them the content they desire. This has led to fragmentation in readership, leading to the possibilities of echo chambers. People are attracted to the news they want to read, the stories that reinforce their preconceived conceptions.
These online only sites have another advantage to traditional publications; they do away with many of the legacy costs which traditional outlets need to service. Without the need to pay for printing presses, delivery fleets, large ad sales teams or pensions, these websites are no longer so beholden to the need to generate a large audience to attract advertisers. However, the breadth and depth of general interest stories suffers as a result. The inconvenience of having to check many different sites to stay up to date on everything that is going on in the world acts as another barrier for people to get a full and informed picture of current events.
What can be learned from why newspapers failed
Disruption is one of the buzzwords of the internet age. Startups are promising that by using the internet old business models will change and work better for the consumer. There are now a lot of in-depth, but niche, newsletters. Sinocism and the Hustle are how many people get news on China or on the tech world. But, again, this content suffers from a lack of diversity, failing to give people a fully informed picture of the world, from all sides of the story.
There are promising developments though. People are more and more likely to pay subscriptions for services they want. Sites such as Netflix, for movies, or Spotify, for music, have normalised the concept of paying for online content. Traditional media is taking advantage of this. The New York Times, one of the best newspapers in the world with well over a hundred Pulitzer prizes, has a subscription paying audience in the millions. That audience, however, is limited to one viewpoint of things, and must go to other sources if it wants news from a non-US perspective, or local news not about New York. Access to multiple newspapers becomes expensive very quickly, especially as many charge a premium fee for their content.
Articulating the answer is easy. People need, and want, a convenient place to consume high quality news and opinion from across the political perspective, and do not want to be charge a high price to do so. That is what we are doing here; one place to read all the news you want and need to, for one low price. Paying a subscription to fund journalism directly, rather than through advertisements, will allow journalism to thrive by being fairly rewarded for deep, impactful reporting.
Journalism is needed by society. Newspapers are not journalism, but for as long as they both have existed they have been tied up together, almost as if they were the same concept. They are not. With the possibilities offered by the internet, journalism can flourish.