Of all the industries disrupted by the rise of the World Wide Web, few have been more affected than the American newspaper. Once considered reliable “cash cows,” boasting a business model with proportionally low overhead compared to their high advertising income, newspaper companies were dealt a body blow by the economics of the digital era, losing approximately 30 billion dollars in advertising revenue between 2006 and 2014. In the early years of the 21st century, newspaper companies were caught off guard by a strange, new expectation that emerged from a public eagerly embracing the Web: that information should be available at no cost.
Traditional commercial news organizations found themselves competing with new online outlets that were giving their content away for free — a previously unthinkable notion to content producers and distributors. Betting that a new revenue model would eventually emerge, many newspapers matched their online competition by adopting the same give-away strategy, despite the fact that a new revenue model was nowhere in sight.
Some papers experimented with fee-based systems called paywalls. But paywalls are often self-defeating; customers are unlikely to pay for news content that is widely available for free elsewhere. Other, less obvious problems with paywalls emerged. The New York Times, for example, created its “TimesSelect” electronic subscription program in 2005 ($50/year or $7.95/month). Just two years later, they eliminated the program citing the frustration of non-subscribers who couldn’t reach search results hidden behind the paywall. While the early commercial Web was developing, newspapers like The Times were sometimes slow to recognize that their content was being found more often through unaffiliated search engines than by users directly digging through their website.
Various other structures such as so-called “freemium” models — in which some subset of content is free and full content access is obtained with a fee — have been tried with varying degrees of success. Yet another twist on the subscription model is “micropayments” in which readers pay a very small fee, 25 cents or so, for access on an article-by-article basis, similar to the iTunes model for music downloads.
Paywalls, freemium access and micropayments all have significant drawbacks and none of them are as lucrative as the old ad revenue model that they replace. The search for new methods of monetizing online news content continues.
The Changing Audience Dynamics
As the World Wide Web destabilized newspaper economics, so too did it upend the dynamics of interaction between media consumers and producers, both in print and on air.
Prior to the Web, audiences were passive receivers on the end of a one-way distribution system. Broadcasters or publishers used to talk, and the audience would listen. But with powerful and ubiquitous communications technology within easy reach, audiences now make the choice as to how to engage with media, with what device, with what app, at what time, and where. The audience now takes part in the cycle of content production and distribution, publicly debating what they see, announcing what they think about it, and sometimes creating their own derivative content based on the original work of others. As summarized by Emily Bell, former director of digital content at the Guardian, “journalists and media companies no longer have any control whatsoever over what happens to their content once they publish it.” Now ordinary people are using the power of social media to influence the traditional media.
With platforms like Periscope and technology like Facebook Live, anyone with a smart phone and an internet connection can break a news or even make it big enough to get noticed by the authorities. So the audience is now slowly becoming the part of decision making for news outlets and traditional media which is basically a complete inversion of traditional media, which is used to influence the audience.
Self-publishing – Everyone Has a Voice Now
Preceding the advent of social media by several years, private blogs were one of the first manifestations of the active audience phenomenon. Keeping blogs populated with fresh content was a challenge for the novices who were blogging in their spare time for no income. Amateur bloggers are motivated to produce free original content to connect with like-minded individuals, establish themselves as experts, or simply to exercise creativity. But in the face of new, simpler platforms that require no technical knowledge and which emphasize the ability to share content with little effort, the popularity of the blog as a means of online expression has waned. As Jason Kottke, author of one of the Web’s longest running blogs, kottke.org, wrote in 2013,
Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.
Some high-profile professional bloggers have left the blog format behind. Andrew Sullivan, a prominent and early political blogger, moved his blog TheDish to a subscription-only access model in 2013. He suspended regular posts to TheDish just two years later citing serious health consequences from the physical and mental strain of non-stop content production. This case highlights an important distinction between self-publishing and publishing on behalf of a media production company: few hands can make for heavy, unsustainable workloads.
With the rise of easy-to-use commercial social media platforms such as those enumerated by Kottke, many amateur self-publishers have abandoned blogging entirely. Interestingly, some of the bloggers of the early 2000’s were able to parlay their self-publishing experience from the early Web into jobs with traditional news outlets. Media pundit Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources, is a prime example of this progression.
Stelter got his start as a teenage media blogger in the classic mode of the early Web. Later, as a college student, he gained notoriety as the creator and producer of the television news blog CableNewser (now called TVNewser). Stelter graduated to established commercial media when he was hired as a media reporter by The New York Times in 2007. While there, his efforts to evangelize the use of emergent social media (particularly Twitter) in professional reporting was documented in the 2010 film Page One: Inside the New York Times. At the time of Page One’s filming, many reporters still viewed social media as proverbial “kid’s stuff.” In the intervening five years the role of social media in reporting has changed dramatically, gaining widespread acceptance among audiences and content producers alike. Many (though certainly not all) journalists are now active Twitter users and make up nearly a quarter (24.6 percent) of the service’s authenticated users.
The Digital-First Paradigm – Adjusting to Realities
While newspapers have grappled with their economic difficulties, they’ve also had to respond to the increasing cultural influence of social media by finding ways to incorporate it into their product.
In 2012, the Scripps Company formed a “learning partnership” called the Four Platform Newsroom Initiative, the stated goal of which was to “produce significantly more high-quality journalism and audience engagement first for the web, smartphones and tablets and then turn to print at the end of the cycle” [emphasis added]. At the end of two years, newsrooms which participated in the Initiative reported “increased activity on digital and social platforms,” an embrace of “new ways of interacting with audiences, including social media, and real-time coverage,” and regular production of video, data and other non-narrative story forms.
In a similar vein of introspection, the New York Times took a hard look at its operations and future in the 2014 “Innovation Report.” One of the conclusions of the Report was that The Times had to aggressively question many of their print-based traditions and the labor being dedicated to them and determine which could be abandoned to free up resources for digital work.
In addition to accepting the fact that a digital-first stance was an unquestioned priority, one of the other central themes of the Innovation Report was that The Times had not been staffing or equipping itself with the technology resources necessary to be successful in the long term. Publishing technology is no longer primarily associated with ink, printing presses and paper and the embrace of digital distribution technology was slow in coming to the newspaper industry. Emily Bell summarized the industry’s sluggish awakening to this fact…
None of us [in the publishing industry] hold Stanford engineering PhDs. We lacked the fundamental technological literacy to understand how these new systems of distribution and expression were going to emerge, we lacked the institutional will or insight to move swiftly enough in the right directions and we were held back in transformation by large, legacy organizations and the revenues that came with them. And doing journalism well is a hard, resource hungry business.
A year following the Innovation Report, media company Digiday offered a performance “report card” on The Times’ efforts, observing that “multiplatform traffic (Web plus app) grew 28 percent to 59 million unique views in April, compared to a year ago” and that “desktop traffic was basically flat, while mobile grew 52 percent to 35.8 million unique views.”
More digital-first realignment is reflected in the efforts of the Guardian which now uses real-time analytics to inform their editorial decisions. Emily Bell notes that changes like this are being implemented industry-wide.
The new newsroom has optimization desks, to make stories work better on social media, data scientists who analyze the information about story performance to tell journalists how to write headlines, produce photographs and report stories which will be ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ more than others.
Social media considerations now influence the selections that some professional writers make when choosing words and crafting sentences. Digital-first indeed.
Though it took many years, the relentless evaporation of ad revenue destroyed any remaining belief that old newspaper publishing models could survive intact. The oldest news organizations are finally changing their established work processes, technology staffing and skill sets, and ways of conducting business, aggressively realigning their products for online distribution and warming up to the idea that private citizens are now in a sense part of the content production team. Physical paper publication is becoming as vestigial to the news business as the old one-way audience communication model.
The Internet and social media have not destroyed newspapers, but they have permanently changed our concepts of what an authoritative news source is and how we interact with it. While newspapers may never again be the easy source of profit they once were for their owners, their news website descendants will carry on their mission. Whether today’s much smaller digital news staffs can deliver news of the same quality and depth beyond a few large national markets remains to be seen.