For the last 15 years, the decline of print newspapers has been the sort of story that, ironically, many newspapers have trouble following. It is not breaking news, nor a violent explosion, but rather a decade-long structural shift without heroes or obvious villains. Between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue fell from about $60 billion to about $20 billion, wiping out the gains of the previous 50 years.
But lately, the collapse of newspapers is looking less like a steady erosion than an accelerating avalanche. This should scare both reporters and readers—all the while, pointing to a new business model for legacy newspapers that is, ironically, their first business model. The collapse of advertising is across the board, affecting just about every broadsheet and tabloid. Print ads are down 15 percent at Gannett, down 17 percent at McClatchy, and down 16 percent at Tronc. The Wall Street Journal is cutting staff and trimming sections, like Greater New York.
Where is all of this money going? To tiny plates of glass. Two earnings reports this week offered a microcosmic glimpse of the shift. On Wednesday morning, the New York Times announced that print ad revenue fell 19 percent for the quarter. Nine hours later, on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook announced that its digital advertising revenue rose 59 percent. There is no direct comparison between the Times, a newspaper that pays luxuriously for reporters and editors, and Facebook, an attention arbitrage network that induces content from unpaid maker-viewers. But it illustrates the larger story most dramatically told by venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s annual slideshow: Audiences are migrating from print bundles to mobile networks and aggregators.