The future of newspapers


Newspapers are laying off beat reporters because their work does not generate enough revenue. The subscriber base is decreasing while the online ad revenue is not rising fast enough to compensate. But newspaper beat reporters covering actual events are the foundation of the news food chain, providing the essential nourishment that sustains all the other things such as TV, commentary, blogs, and other online services. If they go, the rest collapses.

John Oliver discusses the dim future that awaits the news industry if we don’t do something to change the revenue model.

I have always subscribed to newspapers but it is clear that I am part of an ever-decreasing minority in the US. But I am also part of the problem because I get a lot of my news online for free, though I do send in money to some of the websites that I visit regularly.

What I would like to see is a system where each time I click on an article put out by a website that employs actual journalists, I am charged a small amount. At the end of the month, I would get a bill for the amount of actual original content I consumed while the news outlet gets paid. Given the large number of readers of online content, I suspect that a formula could be arrived at that would result in a major source of revenue for the newspapers and a fairly small monthly cost for readers, of the order of ten dollars or so, which is about half the going rate for a newspaper subscription.

Comments

  1. says

    The newspapers made their decision when they started to take ad money. All the internet is doing is speeding up the inevitable process in which the public loses confidence in the news. I think they need to be plowed up and the soil salted: the current ad models mean we’re doomed to decades of clickbait.

    Content is always king, though. Eventually we’ll get back to journals – perhaps they won’t be sponsored by megacorps but.. So what? There will still be people interested in writing the news and analyzing it and those that do it well will find steady work doing it. I think the future model is you’ll see folks like David Axe, Scott Bowden, Sebastian Junger, etc – doing book-length treatments of their experiences and studies, then selling snapshots on websites.

    I don’t weep for the newspapers and I’m positively delighted to think of all the parvenu web journalism that’s hanging on the slender thread of clickvertisement. It’s such an easy thread to cut…

  2. says

    I’m surprised that Oliver didn’t mention that lots of local news is written by AI now. I guess someone passed the Turing test. That’s old news, though.

    Anyone who buys a newspaper from Sheldon Adelson has no right to expect anything but crap.

  3. cartomancer says

    I think the world needs far more by way of high quality, state-funded but editorially independent news services. The news arm of the BBC is a fairly good model. Keeping the public informed and aware is a vital part of running a healthy democratic society, and absolutely cannot be left to capitalism alone to administer. Indeed, I think most countries should think more seriously about limiting corporate intrusion into the national flow of information – including banning or seriously limiting political advertising.

    I also think that when TV companies rely on newspaper journalists alone for their content, and don’t employ their own journalists and researchers to do the groundwork, the system is diminished. If the TV companies are benefitting from this information-gathering effort and making money on the back of it then they too ought to be a part of paying for it.

  4. says

    Cartomancer@#3:
    I’m not so sure about the state.
    What I’d love to see is some of the big “nonprofit” universities and hospitals support journalism. You’ve got places like Stanford with a $40b endowment, why not?

    While it’s cool to sneer about Bezos buying a newspaper, there are other billionaires who could, without necessarily stamping their politics onto it. The Intercept was started by ebay founder Pierre Omidyar. And Peter Thiel owns Gawker 😉 sort of. The problem to me seems mostly that the newspapers are being run by jerks. Which means we have to let them die.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    Marcus@1:

    The newspapers made their decision when they started to take ad money.

    You mean, shortly after newspapers were invented in the 18th century? So what you’re saying is that newspapers have never been good sources for getting news.

    Once the advertising model for news permanently hits the skids (a process being hastened by adblockers), we can expect all the people on the web who actually know what they’re talking about to retreat behind paywalls. The only ones left in free sites will be crazy sites that make stuff up.

    Practice now, so you’ll be ready to say this to your kids or grandkids: “Believe it or not, I remember when the internet actually used to be free.” “No way, grandpa. Really?”

  6. says

    brucegee1962: yup. Newspapers have pretty much always been a vehicle for “public relations” or ideology. If it masks itself behind a pose of neutrality, that’s more often a lie than not.

    There are still possible avenues to good free content. It just may not happen. Too bad society made the wrong people obscenely rich, huh?

  7. springa73 says

    From my limited knowledge, while newspapers have had some advertising revenue since the 18th century, it was not a really big source of revenue until the end of the 19th century. Until the rise of larger mass-circulation newspapers with lots of advertising, most newspapers were not even profitable. At least in the USA, they relied on outside funding, often from political parties. This is one reason why 19th century US newspapers were usually openly and furiously partisan. In some ways, contemporary Internet journalism is going back to the 19th century model of being openly partisan. The 19th century model had its virtues, one of which was that at least its partisanship was very open, with no pretext made of being objective. It certainly had some drawbacks, though. There were only a fairly small number of paid professional journalists, and like some online news sites, it relied heavily on the contributions of unpaid or very low paid writers. There was a lot of copying verbatim from newspaper to newspaper with no attempt at giving credit (copyright was not enforced for newspapers at the time). There was little distinction given between news and editorial opinion. There was usually little or no attempt at fact checking (to be fair, this was vastly more difficult in the 19th century than in the 20th century, let alone the 21st). Overall, I am not convinced that returning to a 19th century model of news reporting would be an overall positive development!

  8. springa73 says

    Marcus@7

    Why single out newspapers, though? Isn’t any form of communication a potential vehicle for ideology?

  9. jrkrideau says

    @Mano
    What I would like to see is a system where each time I click on an article put out by a website that employs actual journalists, I am charged a small amount.

    It exists. A couple of young Dutchmen launched last year. I, vaguely, remember an interview with one of them on CBC last year.

  10. says

    springa73@#10:
    Why single out newspapers, though? Isn’t any form of communication a potential vehicle for ideology?

    Only because that’s the topic at hand.

    Newspapers that are carrying propaganda are not merely lying to you: they way you to give them money to lie to you. You know, all those “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” signs on the walls? I’m not subscribing to those. 😉

    I stopped ever giving the New York Times money after the way it covered the Iraq war. And if there was any way to ask for any of my years of subscription dollars back, I’d have asked for them over their craven coverage of waterboarding and their refusal to use the word “Torture” until Bush was out of office.

  11. Dunc says

    I think the world needs far more by way of high quality, state-funded but editorially independent news services. The news arm of the BBC is a fairly good model.

    It used to be sort-of-OK, but after being on the sharp end of a series of punishment beatings from both government and the tabloids over the last couple of decades, it’s now little better than state propaganda on many issues. Indeed, on some issues, that’s exactly what it is… But even in the days when it did retain a good degree of editorial independence, those editors still came from the same social strata as most of the people they were reporting on – they lived in the same places, went to the same schools, joined the same clubs, and so on – and so inevitably tended to share their viewpoints. It probably looks better from an international perspective, but it’s always been solidly on the side of the British Establishment.

  12. cartomancer says

    Dunc, #13

    I think that what you’re describing is a problem with British public culture in general, not necessarily with the BBC in particular. We have a depressing tendency in this country towards respecting and trusting the establishment, and failing to question inherent class-based presumptions and prejudices. On the other hand, when you look at what the BBC was like fifty, thirty, even ten years ago, it is far less deferential and in somewhat less in cahoots with the Old Boys’ Club than it used to be. People from across the whole political spectrum criticise BBC news for presumed partisanship – I’ve heard it called a bastion of liberal lefty revolutionaries and a pillar of the Tory establishment in the same conversation many times, which suggests to me that it is at least doing something right. I often find the BBC gives far more weight to right-wing and regressive opinions than I would, but I’m significantly left of centre in this country, so I have to accept that it will not always align completely with my views on every issue.

    Among all this, I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that it has, at its core, a commitment to objectivity and non-partisanship as one of its founding principles. It may not always deliver on that, but unlike pretty much any capitalistic commercial broadcaster it does at least hold it up as an ideal to aim for.

    If anything we need a strong, independent BBC now more than ever – which is why the corporate interests and their parliamentary mouthpieces are trying to chip away at it.

  13. Mano Singham says

    The BBC is one model, though not perfect, of how to set some distance between the funders of the news outlet and the editorial staff without the government getting involved. The Guardian is another model. It is owned by a charitable trust that has an endowment that is supposed to insulate it from the problems that come from trying to be totally ad-driven and profit-based but the trust does not as yet generate enough income to cover the costs.

  14. Chiroptera says

    I remember an article where Gore Vidal was explaining how to correctly interpret an article from the New York Times; he told how every time he got together with friends from the Soviet Union, he was always surprised at how well informed they were about international news. When he finally asked them about it, they replied, “Oh, you just have to know how to read Pravda.”

    That said, once you know how to read the NYT, you realize how informative it really is. The trick is to glean the information out of the spin they give it, and in the cases where information is left out how to read between the lines. Hell, I learned “how to read the NYT” back in the early 90s, so it’s not all that difficult.

    Very few other sources of news give enough detailed information to be able to “despin” it, which is probably why I restrict my other sources to those which just confirm my own biases.

  15. Mano Singham says

    Chiroptera,

    I agree. In Sri Lanka that had many newspapers owned by different wealthy interests, one quickly learned how to ‘unfilter’ the news to get a more accurate picture. In the US, the idea that much of the media is neutral and objective is relentlessly hammered into people so that even when it is manifestly not true (as in the case of Fox News) people still think it is.

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