Posted by: CJ | March 24, 2009

Newspapers, Advertising, and Printing Presses

This is a wonderful post on the current trend of the newspaper industry and its origins over the past 20 years. (Hat tip to Brad DeLong.) The post is slightly long though, so I’ll give a summary and some of my thoughts.

The basic idea of the post is that newspapers are declining, but they had known they would need some change in their business structures. They just hadn’t anticipated how much. It was assumed that cost of sharing information would remain high enough that they would continue to be the guardians and regulators of information flow. That’s important because their privileged role makes them a natural venue for advertisements, so (as the article points out) this led to businesses indirectly supporting the public good by supporting news business. But that connection wasn’t nearly as strong as news people had come to assume it was. The rise of the internet meant there was pretty much no need for classifieds (just use Craig’s list or all sorts of other websites online), and that there were other places businesses would rather advertise. At the same time, people started getting news online more and more. Newspapers didn’t anticipate changes coming that large and that quickly, even though they anticipated changes. They’re having a tremendous difficulty keeping up.

There’s also larger point in the article that I find interesting: how the internet is completely upending any regulation of information flow. In the author’s view, it’s comparable to Gutenberg and the printing press. There is, of course, the ease of information in all sorts of domains making it easier to learn whatever we feel like learning at a moment’s notice. Higher education now is more necessary as a certification process than because it’s the only way to learn advanced subjects. But whole industries are also being affected. This has already been true for many people who work to connect buyers with sellers, such as travel agents and real estate agents. And newspapers seem to be the latest casualty in that ongoing process.

Interestingly, I’m have a particularly hard time understanding that radical change is afoot because I’ve been raised with the technology essentially evolving at the same rate that any need for it arises in my life. For example, Orbitz and Travelocity came into being just around the time I started flying, and facebook and texting came into being just around the time I started needing to keep track of large numbers of friends all over and coordinate things with them. I have almost no sense of what life without these new technologies are like, so I have no idea if their revolutionary-ness is being overblown. I wonder how true that is in general for people in my generation? Do we really realize how much things have changed for us compared to the previous generation?

On a separate, but related, topic, I’ve been wondering what should be done about news media funding in the future? I have issues with modern day journalism (e.g. fake news reporters being the most principled in the business), so I’m not particularly sad to see the current regime go. But without funding, foreign and investigative journalism will be too limited for my tastes. Ironically, this is giving yet another good argument for why the government might fund journalism as with the BBC in the UK: the BBC doesn’t depend on advertising revenues to exist. (The other, substantially more counter-intuitive argument, is that a government funded media can much more freely criticize the government. This is at least true in the UK, where government funding of the BBC is inviolate, much like social security or medicare in the US, so that the BBC can do good reporting without worrying about backlash from the government.)

In any case, interesting thoughts and interesting problems…


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