The Stages of Newspapers’ Decline

The second-most common objection to FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average was along these lines:

That’s very true; those same people – and there are a lot of them – didn’t read the news in a newspaper either. Instead they read the Style section, or Sports, the comics or Dear Abby. It doesn’t really matter though – the same principle of the best killing the average still applies. What is Buzzfeed if not funnies for grownups?

Even that, though, undersells what is happening: it’s not only that the Internet lets you find the objectively best content, but that it also lets you find the subjectively best content based on your interests.

To return to the same Columbia Journalism Review article I quoted in the last post:

But the control of distribution that was so profitable IRL hasn’t ended online. It just moved, passing from newspapers, TV stations, and the post office to the companies in Andreessen’s portfolio, which happen to have zero cost of content: Google, Facebook, and Twitter (plus the ISPs).

Google’s gross profit margins were 57 percent last year and Facebook’s were 76 percent, which is just bananas. Gannett at the peak of its labor-cutting and advertiser-milking could never have dreamed of those kinds of margins.

Google has 67 percent of the search market. It alone hauls in 41 percent of all online advertising in the entire country.

And why shouldn’t it? The entire premise of Google is that it finds exactly what I am looking for. The potential of Twitter is that it can be perfectly tailored to my interests. A newspaper designed to appeal to the largest cross-section of people with a bundle that includes everything from international news to the horoscope is much, much less likely to have exactly what I’m looking for, and only a small percentage of what it has will be close.

It’s interesting to map the demise of newspapers against the evolution of communication on the Internet:

  • Stage 1 was simply moving offline content online. This let anyone anywhere access the objectively best, like the New York Times. This decimated a lot of local newspapers, like the Wisconsin State Journal (per my last post)
  • Stage 2 was the introduction of user-generated content broadly, and social specifically. This dramatically increased the range of content available, even as it made it easier to find content subjectively better for any one person. This is when even the objectively best newspapers really started to feel the pain
  • Stage 3 is the mobile and contextual stage, highlighted by the rise in messaging. This is about delivering content that is not just personalized but contextually appropriate to my specific situation. What chance does an industry based on broad reach and the idea of daily editions have?

In case you’re wondering, the most-common objection to FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average was that I didn’t address the demise in advertising. That was intentional; while I plan on talking business models – and it’s an important topic – I think that people in the news industry are too quick to attribute their problems to ads, and too slow to understand how incompatible the Internet is with their definition of a newspaper. Newspapers may be screwed, but we can’t start fixing news until we understand what we’re trying to save, and what is simply a relic.