Read: How TPM got started
Soon, investment dollars flowed into an array of outlets, funding an efflorescence of digital news media. Tech-centric venture-capital firms, in particular, jumped at the chance to deploy their familiar model, pushing in a different direction from TPM’s, building scale and using network effects to lock in dominance and profitability.
So why didn’t it work?
To understand what went wrong with digital journalism, we need to go back to the fat years of newspaper journalism that preceded it.
For several decades in the latter half of the 20th century, most American cities and towns had a single newspaper. Even many of us who were alive then find it difficult now to comprehend just how geographically isolated information and news were at the time. If you lived in Southern California in the 1970s or ’80s, for example, and wanted to stay abreast of the news in all its dimensions, you had little choice but to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times. Some cities and towns had two papers, but the same basic model operated almost everywhere in the United States. That gave these publications a de facto monopoly on commercial speech in their region.
Television, radio, and billboards complicated the monopoly power enjoyed by newspapers a bit—but not much. Car dealerships, movie theaters, and clothing stores had to advertise in the paper. If you wanted to hire or be hired, you had to advertise in the paper. Many publications folded over the course of the 20th century, but once a city was down to one or two papers, publishing was a very lucrative and stable business. Our understanding of how journalism is supposed to work is based on this relatively transitory period in the history of American journalism.
Read: How to survive the media apocalypse
The internet destroyed those local monopolies in the late ’90s, and most papers have never recovered. Suddenly, readers in Omaha, Nebraska, had countless news sources to choose from, and advertisers had limitless options as well. Inertia carried some publications forward for a time; things took a few years to shake out. But the crucial point is that almost all of the elements of good, newspaper journalism—big newsrooms paying middle-class salaries and giving reporters the time to get the story right—were made possible by those monopolies. Without them, there would have been no 20th-century newspapers as many of us knew them.
Out of this creative destruction, digital news journalism was born. And for all the digs about clickbait and “fake news,” the past 25 years have seen a wealth of innovation, creativity, and great journalism online. After one quick cycle of boom and bust in the late ’90s, oceans of investment money poured into digital news publications. They went from success to success, leaving print newspapers in the dust. The Huffington Post was perhaps preeminent among these success stories—launched in 2005, sold for a fabulous $315 million in 2011—but there were many others.