No doubt some mavens of new media who have read this far have spittle in the corners of their mouths at the thought of the dying, tail-dragging dinosaurs of mainstream journalism resurrecting themselves by making the grand tool of the revolution—the Internet—less free. There is no going backward, they will declare, affronted by the idea that a victory already claimed can even be questioned. The newspaper is all but dead, they will insist. Long live the citizen journalist.
Not so fast. While their resentment and frustration with newspapers—given the industry’s reduced editorial ambitions—are justified, their reasoning and conclusions are not. A little history:
For the first thirty years of its existence as America’s primary entertainment medium, television was—after the initial purchase of the set itself—provided at no cost to viewers, instead subsidized by lucrative ad revenues. The notion of Americans in 1975 being asked to pay a monthly bill for their television consumption would have seemed farcical. Yet in the ensuing thirty years, we have become a nation that shells out $60, $70, or $120 in monthly cable fees; indeed, whole vistas of programming exist free of advertising revenue, subsidized entirely by subscriptions.
How did this happen?
Again, content is all. The move to the pay-cable model was preceded by an expansive effort to create additional programming to justify the upgrade from network fare to multichannel packaging. In the beginning, some of that new content amounted to little more than feature-film purchases, additional sports, and twenty-four-hour news and weather. But ultimately, the quantitative increase in programming was accompanied by a qualitative improvement in television fare. You paid more, you got more: HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and, ultimately, a string of niche channels catering to specific audiences and interests. One can critique American TV however ruthlessly one wishes, but the industry is doing something right. More channels, more programming, more revenue—indeed, a revenue stream where none had existed.
By contrast, we have American newspapering, an industry that a quarter century ago was—pound for pound—as lucrative as television, with Wall Street commanding profit margins of 25 and 30 percent. As with television, circulation was accepted as a loss leader, strongly subsidized so that the money it cost to deliver content was more than made up by advertising dollars.
But unlike television, in which industry leaders were constantly reinvesting profits in research and development, where a new technology like cable reception would be contemplated for all its potential and opportunity, the newspapering world was content to send its treasure to Wall Street, appeasing analysts and big-ticket shareholders. There was no reinvestment in programming, no intelligent contemplation of new and transformational circulation models, no thought beyond maximized short-term profit.
Incredibly, and in direct contrast to the growth of television, the remaining monopoly newspapers in American cities—roped together in unwieldy chains and run by men and women who had, by and large, been reared in boardrooms rather than newsrooms—spent the last of their profitable days cutting product, scaling back news holes, shedding veteran reporters, and reducing the scope of coverage. Hiring freezes and buyouts were ongoing in the early and mid-1990s, all of this happening amid the unspoken assumptions that the advertising base was everything, that content didn’t really matter, that news was the stuff troweled into the columns next to the display ads, that there was more profit producing a half-assed, mediocre paper than a good one.
In the 1970s, American auto manufacturing was complicit in its own marginalization through exactly the same mindset: Why not churn out Pacers and Gremlins and Vegas, providing cheap, shoddy vehicles that would be rapidly replaced with newer cheap, shoddy vehicles? What would captive American consumers do? Buy a car from Japan? Germany? South Korea?
Well, yes, as it turns out. But the analogy doesn’t quite capture the extraordinary incompetence exhibited by the newspaper industry. After all, a Toyota is a good car and all that was required for Detroit to begin its agonizing decline was for consumers to be offered a legitimate choice.