Old Media Blues

Jack Shafer writes a lovely column celebrating the rise of new media, and pooh-poohing the old guard who are just afraid of competition from upstarts:

Let me say it another way: The barriers of entry into the journalism business have been battered down, making it easier than ever to enter the profession. That will read as small consolation to the journalists who have had their publications shot out from under them--the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Ann Arbor News (come July 23), and magazines too numerous to tally. But please notice that I'm not saying there has never been a more lucrative or prestigious time to become a journalist. The cash and status associated with the profession are fairly recent. Until the early 1970s or thereabouts, the average journalist made an average salary (if that), and his societal standing was modest.

If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance. No, I'm not saying that every junior blogger and pint-size videographer will immediately stand as tall as Barton Gellman and Errol Morris and that the Washington Post and NBC News should be flushed. But journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn't mean that journalism isn't thriving.

From where I drink, the champagne is still dry, cold, and fizzy.

This seems to me to rather precisely miss the point.  The problem besetting newspapers is not that there are hordes of bloggers giving it away for free.  Bloggers are, to be sure, great competition for the op-ed section.  But the op-ed section is not a money maker, as the New York Times so painfully discovered with Times Select.  As I wrote at the time, the Times confused what people were emailing each other with what they would be willing to pay for.  If those things were the same, poems about Jesus and pictures of kittens wearing hats would have replaced gambling and porn as the internet's most profitable content.

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 could herd every new media type into camps and force them to become shorthand/typists, and newspapers would still be in just as bad shape as they are now.  We could take down Google News, and it would barely register in their bottom lines.  Even if every newspaper and magazine in the country entered into a binding cartel agreement not to put more than a smidgen of free content on their websites, newspapers would still be losing money, and closing by the dozens.  It's the economics, stupid.

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.

This is a genuine loss for the American public.  Cities without newspapers seem to experience a sizeable increase in insider self-dealing and other forms of corruption--one theory as to why the Federal government is less corrupt than state and local governments is simply that it's more thoroughly covered by the press.  I am second to none in my appreciation of new media and its possibilities.  But so far, it has proven more effective as a complement to old media than a replacement.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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