Woodward and Bernstein. The glory days of newspaper journalism are long gone.
by James A. Bacon
The disintegration of the newspaper industry is accelerating. Even as the global advertising market is expected to grow 4% this year, spending on newspaper print ads is expected to decline 8.7% in 2016, according to estimates from GroupM, an ad-buying firm, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. That would be the biggest drop since the last recession. Leading newspaper brands like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are getting clobbered just as hard as the smaller papers.
That decline appears to be matched by a decline in local newspaper advertising spending. I made a quick count of advertising pages in the T-D today. After excluding the non revenue-producing in-house ads and public service ads, the 38-page newspaper edition contained roughly six pages of display and classified advertising, plus a six-page advertorial insert. In the heyday of the newspaper industry, advertising comprised up to 50% of the newspaper lineage.
Newspapers are migrating as rapidly as they can to online advertising, and they are making gains. But they have much more competition in cyberspace, and the revenue yield per eyeball is lower than it is for print. Thus, while a full-page ad in a national paper might run $100 per 1,000 readers, the WSJ reports, prime-time TV ads run about $37. I haven’t checked online advertising recently, but as I recall the cost of banner ads runs around $1 or $2.
Readers of print ads are literally dying off, and so is the print-based business model that supports newsroom staffs that, though shrinking, are still substantial. What everyone needs to contemplate — and that includes Google, Facebook, and all the other technology-driven platforms that have extracted most of the economic value from online readership — is what happens when newspapers begin folding one by one. Who will report the news?
Look at all the online news aggregators — they feed off content created by others. They spend zero, zip, nada on creating content themselves. What happens when their reputable news content dries up? What will they have to aggregate? What will people have to comment upon? These entities will be exposed for the parasites they are.
I frequently chastise local newspapers for voids or failings in their coverage. But that coverage, as imperfect as it is, is vastly preferable to the information sources that would be available if there were no newsrooms. While in-depth investigating reporting is nearly dead in Virginia, reporters still cover important public hearings and other events. Without newspaper reporters, we would have almost no idea of what is happening. (I’m sorry, I don’t take TV news seriously. Local TV covers only the most controversial topics, and their format requires them to boil down complex stories to one- and two-minute snippets that skim the surface.)
Yes, newspapers’ framing of issues is biased (subtly on the part of local media, blatantly on the part of national media) by the values and worldviews of the journalists, who skew center-left. But the journalistic ethic tempers biases by fostering an ideal of objectivity that requires reporters (a) to check facts, and (b) to take note of differing points of view.
As local newsrooms shrink, there will be fewer journalists to cover a society that grows ever more complex. Reporters will know less and less about the topics they are writing about, and their coverage inevitably will become more and more shallow. At some point their value-add will be negligible. Then our main sources of information will be press releases, think tank studies, official presentations at public hearings, commentary, and bloggers unconstrained by journalistic ethics of any kind.
If you thought the state of public discourse in America couldn’t get any worse, think again.