Yesterday Ezra Klein wrote this (emphasis mine):
One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers. That leads to a focus on the journalism side of things rather than the business side. But good journalism hasn’t stopped being profitable. It simply never was profitable. The problem is that advertising has collapsed, and readers have moved online, and department stores have merged, and all the rest of it. If Gawker, and everyone else, was more fastidious about links, there’s no evidence that newspaper revenue would rebound.
Upon reading that, I immediately felt stupid. Why had I never realized this before? It’s so obvious, and yet I hadn’t connected the dots that way before Klein did for me.
And then I became skeptical, and felt stupider. If that’s true, I wondered, how come I hadn’t read anyone else point out that fact sooner? And why am I so willing to call it fact so quickly? What do I know, really?
Not much. I came of age in the internet era, so I speak on little knowledge when I talk about the times before my own. But the highlighted sentence of Klein’s post, as soon as I read it, spoke like truth to me. Here’s what I think I know:
- Newspapers made vast amounts of money off advertisements until very recently. Of course they could do so because many people read their papers. But ads, not consumers, paid for the content directly. Consumers subsidized, and made all the revenue possible by reading.
- People read newspapers for lots of reasons, and journalism was only one of them. People did and do buy newspapers for access to advertisements, for crossword puzzles and sports scores, and for much other content that is not rooted in journalism, that requires no reporting to obtain.
- Before the internet, much of this information would have been available to consumers through media besides newspapers, but: a) most content was only available through specific other media, not all other media; b) media like TV and radio, through which information like sports scores and weather has always been available, transmit content at specific times, and thus must be followed at the right time to acquire the right information; and c) no other medium included all the information that newspapers did and do, every day and every week.
I’ve started and stopped about half a dozen posts now about the future of journalism. My ideas about where journalism is headed mean nothing; I really know nothing about this industry. But, as a consumer and as a hopeful producer before too long, I’m not content to say or hear, “Journalism is dying.” Newspapers, in broad terms, may be. But we need to keep pressing to understand which forces are doing what to the news media in general, and what that means for journalism. Newspapers themselves are not worth saving for any public good; their journalism is.
So let’s make sure we know who paid for journalism and how. Klein, I believe, is on to something that gets far too little attention in this whole discussion. And, though my thought, “Why haven’t I read this elsewhere? Could it really be true?,” is a good test to put most ideas through, it shouldn’t be a stumbling block here, for a reason Klein points out in that paragraph: “One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers.” There’s no conspiracy here, but it seems silly to ask newspaper writers to admit that their product has never been profitable. Value, in our economy, is most easily and permanently determined by profit.
Postscript: At the end of his post, Klein links to this piece by David Simon in the Columbia Journalism Review (which was also sent to me tonight by a friend. HT: DGP). Though I don’t believe he’s right in insisting that an immediate paywall at The New York Times and The Washington Post is the only or even necessarily the best route for American newspapers, the piece is maybe the best, most thoughtful, and most fair analysis on newspapers’ pasts, presents, and futures. Most of all, I take from it that HBO, more than anything else, is the model to follow, somehow.