Opinion | How the economics of the news business altered the news itself


In unpleasant times, for example now, nostalgia can be a narcotic. Still, it’s reasonable to look back longingly on when newspapers were filled with advertisements for department stores, grocery stores, and car dealerships.

And news, much of it distressing: The world is a fallen place and, as journalists say, we don’t report planes that land safely. Still, newspapers mattered more and performed differently when they were supported substantially by advertisements from local businesses, rather than, as is increasingly the case, readers’ digital subscriptions.

This is how Andrey Mir argues in “How the media polarized usat the Manhattan Institute city ​​newspaper. The title of Mir’s essay treats “media” and “newspapers”, his main theme, as synonyms. But social media and cable television have drawn newspapers in his direction.

Mir, the author of “Post-journalism and the death of newspapers”, says that the Internet is to blame because it has destroyed the monopoly that newspapers had to build for advertisers a wide audience of the kind of readers that advertisers value: rich and mature. Newspapers’ “reliance on advertising,” Mir believes, “determined their attitude toward their readers.” It was a respectful attitude towards readers who want to make their own judgments and who are reluctant to the political agendas advanced in the reports.

The unraveling of the newspaper ad-based business model began with the migration of classifieds to the Internet. In 2000, they gave newspapers $19.6 billion, about a third of newspaper revenue. In 2013, Google’s $51 billion in ad revenue dwarfed US newspapers’ total ad revenue of $23 billion. For 2018, classified ad revenue was just $2.2 billion. Advertisers increasingly concluded, says Mir, that newspaper advertising was “an expensive and inefficient method of bombarding their target audiences.” And ad revenue began to lag far behind reader revenue.

“Even the strongest American newspapers,” Mir says, “couldn’t hold onto advertisers: The New York Times started making more revenue from readers than from ads in 2012.” So “journalism was now looking for new partners”: digital subscriptions, whose multiplication could be driven by anger and fear, the fertilizers of polarization. The publishers “agitated the digitized, urban, educated, progressive youth to the point of political outrage.”

The advertising-based business model of newspapers, which appealed to the temperate milieu of society, “kept the natural liberal disposition of journalists in check.” The digital subscription business model “elevated the role of progressive discourse makers” (academics and other social justice warriors) and “enhanced activism as a mindset.” The new model is defined by the “intensity of self-expression in the search for a response.” By the early 2010s, “the advertising-dictated need to appeal to the average American,” says Mir, had been replaced by the search for digital subscriptions from ideologically motivated readers.

The “awareness threshold” (60 percent of a cohort using social media) was reached in 2011 for urban, college-educated people ages 18 to 49. A more conservative demographic crossed this threshold in 2016, the year of a political earthquake that provided mainstream media outlets with a product they could sell to digital subscribers: Donald Trump as an “existential danger.”

Suddenly, Mir says, subscriptions could be solicited as “donations to a cause”: “the resistance”, and all that. “The scare came to replace the news as a commodity.” This new business model “made the media the agents of polarization”. The right-wing media quickly learned the new game of selling the chill of fear instead of news: the fear of being demographically “replaced,” K-12 political and sexual indoctrination, etc.

Mir believes that all of this has produced a “post-journalism”, whereby the mainstream media does not provide news but rather “news validation”, the validation of news that is disturbing “within certain value systems”. This business model, the media as “agents of polarization”, results in the stratification of newspapers because, Mir says, it produces great rewards for only a few newspapers of national importance:

“People want disturbing news to be validated by a licensed notary with the largest following. Audiences want to pay only for flagship media, like the new york times either washington post. … Most of the money from subscriptions flows to a few giants. The new subscription model has led not only to media polarization but also to media concentration.”

Mir says that while journalism used to want its picture of the world to fit the world, “post-journalism wants the world to fit its picture.” This, he says he, “is a definition of propaganda. Post-journalism has turned the media into crowdfunded Ministries of Truth.” Although he paints with a broad brush and few pastels, there is one adjective that fits the description of him in today’s media world: newsworthy.

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