News never made money, and is unlikely to | Jack Shafer

Neal Carr ’13

The American newspapers of the 1820s and early 1830s were creatures of political parties, edited by zealots. Essentially propaganda sheets, these newspapers were “devoted to winning elections,” as Baldasty wrote well before (1992) the Web invasion.

Born in the early 1990s, I’ve practically grown up expecting that the demise of newspapers was right around the corner. As the internet has become a more integral part of everyone’s lives, a common narrative has emerged surrounding new technology’s role in the (eventual) death of printed news. This narrative seems like it has more or less maintained the same structure throughout the last couple of decades: as more people consume their news from free sources online, printed news sources that charge money for their product cannot compete, leading to the collapse of the industry. It’s an easy story and one that most people accept at face value. Basic economics tells us that, given a choice between two comparable products, consumers will choose the cheaper good. And free is very cheap.

Of course, this kind of prediction is awful news for those who have something invested in printed news media or those who generally prefer consuming their news on paper. As such, paper advocates have offered responses to those who doubt printed news’ usefulness in the twenty-first century. Among the most persuasive of their reasons, at least in my opinion, is that newspapers serve an important and unique public duty in our democratic society; they are the fourth estate. Advocates argue that newspapers must exist in order for our society to function. They keep the public informed and they keep the government and those in power in check. Their influence and potential to catalyze change is unparalleled since printed news is extremely accessible. Additionally, they have the luxury resources to expand and follow a news story in further depth than broadcast journalism and blogs do or want to.

However, after I read Schafer’s article, it’s apparent to me that this kind of thinking reeks of romanticization. I, for one, have been more likely to assume the best from newspapers, but realistically, they can’t be held to a bar as high as the one their advocates have set for them in the course of arguing for their survival. The romanticization contrasts well with the other side of this narrative, though. Critics argue variously about how new technology is here to replace printed news, how people don’t have the time to read a newspaper every day anymore, how they’re too expensive, etc. The story’s essentially become a dualism: either printed news is vital to a functioning society or it’s an expensive anachronism that will never make money again.

As is the case with (probably) all dualisms, though, the real story is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and Shafer’s article helps to illuminate where the industry really stands today. Looking back through the history of printed news reveals how dynamic the business has been over time. From papers’ shady beginnings with political parties (what once was taken as news in an earlier age may very well be regulated by the FEC if it were to be printed and mailed out today) to the industry’s shift towards softer news in its efforts to appease paying advertisers, printed news apparently hasn’t ever really been solely for the public good. I stop short of accusing newspapers from keeping the public as an afterthought, but it seems that throughout their history their ideal function wasn’t realized until much more recently as the threat of their demise became more palpable with the public’s increasing comfort with the internet and new technologies.

Fortunately, printed news media continues to change and adapt, whether or not it’s for the better or worse. While I’d like to see all newspapers improve, that isn’t going to happen and reviewing the history reveals that I shouldn’t expect such an action to happen. Critics point to how the number of newspapers is declining. As a response to that, I could point out how a handful of newspapers have risen to national prominence relying a great deal on the internet and social media (some even managing to turn a profit within recent years). One of the biggest successes in this field is The Atlantic. With the help of new media and a better focus on access and technology, the magazine has completely turned itself around and is on very comfortable ground now, even opening two new online publications over the last two years. Quartz, the earlier of the two new publications, has already hit a significant milestone: two million unique web visitors this past July which is more thanThe Economist, one of its main business competitors and an institution that’s been in business since 1843. While The Economist has commendable content and a very well-respected name, its online presence is lacking and its readership numbers reflect that unfortunate fact. These examples are representative of what’s happening across the board. Many news companies are becoming more adept at operating online and are quite creative in how they convey news and interact with their readers (something that papers couldn’t do until just recently, excluding the “Letters to the Editor” section). The news industry is changing once again and, like in any industry, the businesses that refuse to change with the shifting currents will be left behind.

It’s time to change the narrative with which I’ve grown up. While printed news may eventually become more anomalous, their brands will survive if they can figure out how to integrate both online and offline presences— and many news sources have been recently successful with such a venture, after much trial and error. It’s less a demise of the newspaper than it is a shift to other opportunities.