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Popular Misconceptions: The Internet Killed Newspapers.

Posted by Matthew Greensmith at 5:46 AM on April 22, 2009

It is almost regarded as a truism, that the rise of Internet based classifieds like Craigslist and Ebay are the reason that print news is in such dire straights.  In reality it was TV that killed the newspapers, classifieds just kept them on life support for a while.  When faced with a disruptive technology, print news had a number of options on how to respond.  Their choice meant that their revenue base was no longer connected to their core business.  This contributed to the degradation of their news business and made it difficult to respond to later disruptive events.

Like most things, newspapers started out small with a very specific agendas based around trade information, news or propaganda.  Eventually one class of newspapers evolved to be the primary method people used to get their news about what was happening locally and worldwide.  Given the expense of getting information from one place to another was high and the speed was slow, local towns would consolidate the information into a paper that everyone could reference.

Newspapers became the primary information source of an expanding western world and naturally gained a significant cultural and political influence.  The first shock they faced came in the form of radio.  The ability to have your news condensed and read to you was a powerful competitor to newspapers.  The paper had an advantage though.  Radio could offer breadth or depth but not both, it was serial and proscriptive.  Newspapers could go wide and deep and allowed readers to select which they wanted for different topics and control over the order and timing.  The newspapers response to radio was to broaden their content and to perform more in-depth investigation.

When television hit, it was initially responded to in the same way, as despite the addition of pictures its dynamic to newspapers was essentially the same.  Over time though TV learned how to use its medium to become a greater force in investigative journalism as video of what was happening proved to be extrememly compelling.  Newspapers began to lose circulation.

The other change happening at the same time was in advertising.  While newspapers used advertising as a suplemental income, commercial TV was almost completely financed by advertising.  This created a dynamic that eventually corrupted televisions ability to provide reporting that was not either biased or sensationalised.  If newspapers had realised the advantage they still held in reporting they may have eventually weathered the storm of TV, however they took a different route.

Advertising had become increasingly important to newpapers and classifieds were the form of advertising where television and radio could not compete.  This became the battleground where newspapers decided to fight.  This had powerful reprecussions for how they structured themselves and the decisions they took.  These decisions meant that advertising became their core business instead of news dissemination.  I’ll illustrate using car ads as an example.

Regardless of how many papers they have, most cities have one newspaper that is known to be the place to sell or buy a car.  Buyers don’t want to buy multiple papers to find their car and sellers don’t want to buy multiple ads.  Whichever paper gets the reputation as the car paper gets an effective monopoly.  If you want that to be your paper you have some actions you can take.

  • Put in more articles about cars to attract interested readers.
  • Maybe some editorial by known automotive identities.
  • Offer incentives like cheap rates and bylines to attract car manufacturers and retailers to advertise with you.  This definitely means not too much bad press for these advertisers.
  • Keep your cover price low to gain readers, even lower than your production costs as you will get it back in advertising.
  • Make your story choices based on what will increase circulation rather than what is relevant news.  Sensational headlines are gold.
  • Buy out smaller papers to increase your readership.

None of these decisions have anything to do with quality or independance of news reporting.  This newspaper has essentially become an advertising company rather than a news one.  Unfortunately for them they may not actually realise this.  Then a shock comes from a different direction.  While the Internet can speed the dissemination of news it has no intrinsic features that allow it to give better quality news.  What it does have though is a better and cheaper way to do classifieds.  This decimates what has become the newspapers primary source of revenue.

To combat this they papers cut costs.  They are now so dependent on advertising revenue they cannot seem to let this go.  A lot of newspapers are also no longer run by news people.  They respond to the Internet threat by cutting costs in news production.  They print more syndicated stories, pay less and give tighter deadlines for investigative journalism, give more column inches to pundits and opinion columnists.  This is a bad strategic move.

As stated before the Internet has no inherent advantage in investigative journalism.  It does have an advantage in disseminating information though, things like reprinting syndicated reports, punditry and opinion columns.  And there are no shortage of people willing to offer their opinion or analysis for little financial reward. <Why are you looking at me?>  In short, papers decided to combat the Internet by focusing themselves on areas where there competition were strongest.  Their response to the earlier threat from television made it hard for them to take another path.

So in the end the Internet did not kill the newspapers.  It snatched away the crutch they were using to prop themselves up after they botched their response to TV.

2 Comments

  1. From Mark at 9:12 am on April 22, 2009

    Good article. I have worked in printing for the last 24 years, part of that time in newspaper printing. It was common knowledge the the name “NEWS”-paper was a huge joke. We all knew they were really “AD”-papers. The ads are the first thing laid out in a “news”-paper. Then news articles are edited and trimmed to fit around the ads. What, and how much, color is run, is usually determined by an advertiser choosing to buy color ads in a section. That allows them to add color to editorial content in the same section at virtually no cost.
    Real estate advertising has been a major source of the ad revenue for paper. Not only has most of that transitioned to the web, we all know that the housing market is at or near rock bottom, so those dollars have dried up.
    Advertising pays for newspapers and magazines. The cost of subscriptions doesn’t even cover the cost of paper, let alone the printing, distribution, writing, etc….

  2. From Derek K. Miller at 9:39 am on April 22, 2009

    I always found it interesting how little hard-hitting investigation of auto companies and real estate there is in papers with large Autos and Homes sections. Here in Vancouver, it took hundreds of near-new buildings to start leaking because of poor design and construction before the papers started covering the “leaky condo crisis” (as it’s now known) in the ’90s. When the problem was developing, what you saw were glowing features in the Homes section about all these fabulous new condo developments.

    I’m lucky not to have bought into any of those developments, but that lack of news coverage was what brought me to distrust newspaper coverage in this city.