Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
If It Leads, It Bleeds
On the 21st century media collapse
My latest in the New York Times Magazine—and my first feature since I became a contributing writer there—is out today. It’s on the Democrats and it’ll be in print on Sunday, bundled with the newspaper. Check it out!
It was a momentous year for the Rocky Mountain News. Few newspapers reach a 150th anniversary, but here it came for the venerable daily tabloid, in 2009. The paper had been founded when Denver was part of the Kansas Territory, more than a decade before the state of Colorado existed. The first issue had been hauled on an oxcart before Abraham Lincoln ran for president. In the late nineteenth century, the newspaper was known for its crusading anti-corruption stance, challenging a notorious crime boss named Soapy Smith who earned his moniker for a street-corner scam involving soap. It was plausible, heading into 2009, that the Rocky was Colorado’s oldest continuing business. And it made Denver one of a number of cities, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that was a two-newspaper town. The Rocky Mountain News jousted with the Denver Post, engaging in the kind of rivalry that generally benefited the public: each newspaper wanted to outdo the other by hiring more reporters, breaking more news, and offering a better product to the growing city. If one paper sent three reporters to a Denver Broncos road game, the other would send four. If four went to a Broncos Super Bowl, the other sent five. The Post covered the state as well, while the Rocky maintained an urban and regional focus. It was known, first and foremost, as a very appealing visual paper, more like a magazine with splashy, compelling photography. Matching the Post in circulation, the Rocky twice won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography. One of them came after the Columbine massacre of 1999.
One aspect of the war between the Rocky and the Post was the price of the newspaper—it kept getting lower in a bid to attract new subscribers. This was, for many years, tenable enough. In the twentieth century, American newspapers had a durable and reliable business model, paid advertising, that made subscriptions themselves almost secondary. Every newspaper longed for a higher subscription number because more was better than less and blanket coverage of a region mattered, but the real source of newspaper growth was the advertisers, both large and small businesses, as well as the various landlords and employers running ads in the daily classified section. This is an old story, in one sense, but worth focusing on anew in wake of the newspaper cataclysm that visited the United States and large parts of the developed world in the last two decades. Few businesses anywhere lost standing in such a short period of time as the print newspaper in the early years of the twenty-first century. A monopoly on information and revenue was erased seemingly overnight. The internet was, of course, the primary culprit, but so was mismanagement, consolidation, and a lack of interest in the inevitable.
Consider the plight of the newspaper: for so long, the business model made sense. Not just for the Rocky, the Post, but everywhere where there was a town or city and journalists who wrote something about what happened inside of them. The model was as durable as any, surviving multiple technological revolutions and upheavals. Like any business, newspapers could have their ups and down—many folded altogether long before the rise of the internet, others were swallowed up by conglomerates—and there were questions, with the rise of radio and then television, whether physical copies of the news could matter so much. In the second half of the twentieth century, at Empire’s peak, television became far more dominant, with nightly news broadcasts attaining totemic followings in the 1960s and 1970s. What didn’t change, however, were the fundamental principles of the newspaper business—and they didn’t have to. Television advertisements didn’t detract, all that much, from print. Each chased different audiences and niches; the largest corporations in America had no problem advertising in both. And there were ways television advertising was simply too inefficient and expensive. Smaller businesses were not always going to pay for 30-second ads and landlords were not going to announce new apartment listings on television. Television was also ephemeral, by appointment only, and a newspaper arrived each day, the print and advertising frozen in place. The classified section could not be supplanted. It didn’t matter what broadcast, cable, or radio really did.
Most importantly, perhaps, was how the newspaper was able to unite disparate interest groups and entice them to read. Painstaking investigative work did not sell newspapers. But weather reports, crossword puzzles, comics, and the sports section did. Popular sections underwrote what was less popular, an equilibrium doomed once the unbundling arrived. What could unbundle sports, crosswords, weather, and serious news? At first, personal computers were clunky and amusing. In the 1990s, newspapers even began launching websites, allowing their reporting to appear for free. Why would a person who paid for a newspaper keep paying for the newspaper when the very content could be had, free of charge, on the internet? For several years, at least, this wasn’t a question worth wrestling with in any profound way. For many news executives, the internet was an appealing supplement to the main product and little else. It wouldn’t be anything more, anyway, not with the way a webpage crawled to life on a desktop computer. Besides, it wasn’t as if the desktop computer, even when internet speeds improved, would be portable. Yes, the laptop was coming to supplant it and it was feasible some people, probably white-collar professionals, would choose to tote their laptops around to read free news. Someday, a subway car headed to work would be filled with laptops instead of newspapers. Or maybe not—as sleek as it was, the laptop was a large and expensive piece of equipment. It didn’t fit snugly into a pocket.
There were limits to technology at the end of Empire. If a couple wanted to see a movie, how else, other than dialing a phone service, to find out what time their film was playing than to buy a newspaper? How else to know, if you’ve missed the nightly news, what the weather will be on Thursday? How else to check the box score from last night’s game? Again and again, the newspaper could reign supreme, commanding an unshakable monopoly on everyday life. The way it was in 1955 was not all that different in 1985. A man could walk on the moon and a former actor could become president, but a newspaper would be waiting on the breakfast table every morning, both for the former actor and the astronaut. People did not read news out of a sacred duty. They read because they had to, because whatever they were seeking, in most cases, was bound up in the print before them. This was life. It was, it seemed, how it would always be. And life with a newspaper, for both good and ill, enforced a form of consensus, a general gathering place for accepted fact and narrative. The downsides were obvious: alternative points of view, even those with merit, had to fight much harder to be heard. Major national newspapers could be bastions of racism and sexism and other kinds of insidious groupthink. Support for disastrous causes could be manufactured with relative ease and historic tragedies like the Holocaust could only be known about as they were happening if newspapers cared enough to report on them. On a smaller scale, challenging incorrect conventional narratives, once hardened into the reality of print, could be inordinately difficult. The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman from New York City, was emblematic of this danger: a deeply misleading Times report, overseen by the imperial metropolitan editor Abe Rosenthal, would claim 38 people watched her die and did nothing to intervene. There was no substantial evidence that Genovese died with such an audience. The report was a gross exaggeration. Yet decades would pass with otherwise educated people talking about the tragedy of Genovese and the “bystander effect,” the so-called inability of crowds to act to stop terrible attacks in their wake.
One of the biggest shifts from Empire to post-Empire was the utter annihilation of news beyond the major markets of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Media outlets would suffer there as well, with the strength of secondary newspapers declining markedly, but it was in cities like Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Denver where the great hollowing out of news was felt most. Beyond these cities, suburbs, smaller towns, and exurbs were struck even harder, as longtime institutions floated only on local advertising revenue found most of their income erased. A town or county has one newspaper, and then none. Stories that would have existed don’t exist. Town meetings and political debates go uncovered. Newer generations don’t complain because they don’t know what’s absent. It’s harder to protest a lack of news. It’s harder to campaign for what isn’t there.
The Rocky, in its 150th year, would be no more. This was a devastating shock to many and not such a shock to those assessing the landscape for newspapers in the year 2009. The internet, in all its brilliance and ruthlessness, had made the newspaper’s business model obsolete. In these years, many veterans of the news industry were most bitter towards a website called Craiglist, founded by the computer programmer and entrepreneur Craig Newmark in 1995. Newmark was blamed because he created a website to perform the role of the newspaper classified section. On Craigslist, landlords could advertise apartments, employers could post job listings, and various items could be listed for sale. With its rudimentary appearance and ease-of-use, Craigslist was increasingly popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For advertisers, it was a cheaper way to reach younger consumers. The Craiglist rate, naturally, was much lower than the newspaper rate. Newmark had first-mover advantage and became very wealthy off what would be, unintentionally, a fatal blow delivered to the newspaper industry. But the resentment of Newmark among newspaper reporters and executives was misguided at best, myopic at worst—if Newmark hadn’t figured out how to make money off of online apartment and job listings, someone else would have. Once internet usage became common, this monopoly the newspapers enjoyed would be finished.
There was a belief, as the 2000s began in earnest, newspapers could simply replace print advertising revenue with digital advertising revenue. If a half-page spread in a newspaper cost an auto dealership $10,000, couldn’t they simply pay a similar rate for a banner ad on the internet? The economics of such a proposition didn’t make sense. The internet, more than anything else, was about having options. Webpages multiplied infinitely and many of the most visited places were not newspapers at all. The local Ford dealership did not have to choose the Baltimore Sun, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, or the Rocky Mountain News to tell residents about their new deals or existing stock. They could advertise anywhere they chose. From 2000 to 2012, print advertising revenue fell by 71 percent. The cause would be the greatest repository for advertising dollars ever invented: Google and Facebook.
Neither tech behemoth, which each achieved dominance in the 2000s, set out to destroy the news industry. Facebook, the brainchild of a prodigy programmer, was created for college students to network and socialize online. Google, the product of Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, intended to rationalize the process of searching for information online. It was not obvious either company would catalyze what would have been a more gradual decline for an industry ill-fit for a world where all meaningful information would be delivered digitally. When Google’s domain name was registered on September 15, 1997, newspapers were still profitable, and would be for several years longer. They were in frailer shape by 2004, when Facebook emerged, but far more robust than they would be in another decade.
It is striking, in retrospect, how little advertisers knew about their customers for the entirety of Empire. Despite the rise of all kinds of advanced technologies in the postwar era, advertising amounted to guesswork, the mythology depicted on Mad Men, a brilliant vehicle for midcentury nostalgia that debuted as Empire was crumbling away. A colorful or witty advertisement was developed in a boardroom and placed in newsprint or on television. The product sold or didn’t sell. Was it the advertisement’s doing? Perhaps. Only results told a story and results were murky. The product itself may have been popular or its success was the result of a trend unforeseen, an intangible shift in the culture. People may enjoy the taste of Coke or the style of a Porsche, regardless of what the suits of Madison Avenue tell them. And the data—well, there wasn’t any, none of the serious variety, anyway. If a customer used a charge card or bought on credit, a store theoretically knew what it was they were consistently taking home, but none of this was harvested meaningfully. Large companies could run surveys and focus groups and even poll in the hopes of learning as much about their customers as possible. What they could not do, with any precision, was determine the buying habits of individual shoppers. Even when computers became more commonplace at the end of the century, tabulating and holding such data was virtually impossible. The first problem was storage: computers in the 1990s did not have the power to hold such reams of information. The second problem was capability. No technology or platform had come into being that could perform the amount of surveillance required to make it worthwhile.
In the 2000s, the number of people using Facebook and Google increased dramatically. Google’s proprietary algorithm allowed it to rapidly dominate a search domain that once had viable competitors. Microsoft, a giant elsewhere, would never be a serious rival to Google again when it came to the search engine. Google’s search organized results in an uncanny, intuitive manner, almost as if it knew what the person staring into the screen was thinking. Each habitual user of Google became a data point: every search, every click, every morsel of personal information left behind. Google was, for a growing number of Americans, synonymous with the internet itself. The word google became a verb, interchangeable with search. On television, the word appeared for the first time in an October 2002 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Have you googled her yet,” a character named Willow asks. “She’s only 17!” another character, Xander, replies. A new age had arrived.
Once Google was operational, there was nowhere else—other than a titanic social network—an advertiser could feasibly be. The rates were far cheaper than any newspaper would charge and precision was promised—the ability target consumer by want, need, and location. Facebook offered the same, with millions of detailed profiles suddenly at their disposal. Microtargeting would never quite offer the absolute precision Facebook and Google promised, but it was far more than any newspaper ad department could ever provide. An ad in a newspaper sat and waited. A Facebook and Google ad existed to be devoured, potentially, by millions. Soon, more than half of all online advertising revenue would be swallowed up by the two companies. There was no turning back.
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