Just when you thought it was over.
From : VANITY FAIR MAGAZINE – MAY 2014
In most hand-wringing debates about the future of newspapers, high-quality journalism is seen as doomed by the Internet. The author—V.F.’s newest columnist—begs to disagree.
By Michael Kinsley
BY CARL MYDANS/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES.THE WAY IT WAS Multiple editions, breaking news on the afternoon commute, November 22, 1963.
My friend Nicholas Lemann, who recently stepped down as dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has done his time and then some at symposia and similar gatherings to discuss the Future of Newspapers in the Age of the Internet. Nick says he has one firm rule about such discussions: “You’re not allowed to say, ‘It will all work out somehow.’ ” If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to say how. Unfortunately, having thought about it for a bit, I’ve more or less concluded that the ongoing crisis of newspapers—going bankrupt, being sold for peanuts, firing staff, cutting foreign bureaus, and so on—will all work out, somehow. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you why.
It’s partly Stein’s Law, named after the late Herbert Stein, an economist who served as chairman of Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers. Stein’s Law is more or less the opposite of Lemann’s Dictum. It holds that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This is a conservative notion, a clarion call to inaction on almost any subject: problems tend to resolve themselves.
And then there’s that old Chinese curse: May your dreams come true. If you could go back to, say, 1994, two decades ago, and if you could have told newspaper publishers that soon they’d be able to produce and distribute a daily newspaper at no cost for newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink), that they could shut down those huge presses and dispense with troublesome unions once and for all, and that they wouldn’t even need paperboys (or girls) anymore to throw the paper into the neighbor’s bushes—if you could have told them that all these costs were about to plummet to near zero—the publishers would have thought, Now, that sounds like a pretty great deal. I’ll take it. So how has this unexpected gift from God turned into such a disaster for them? There must be large amounts of either incompetence or bad luck involved. Anyone, like me, whose solution is a vague “Things will work out somehow” lacks standing to blame the problem on other people’s incompetence. So we will call it bad luck.
It’s not true that the publishers have just stood by while the Internet has stolen their business. Way back in 1981, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, under its leader that year—Katharine Graham, the C.E.O. of the Washington Post Co.—made a big lobbying push for a law forbidding AT&T, then a government-sanctioned telephone monopoly, to sell classified ads electronically. The publishers argued that the telephone company’s monopoly guaranteed the company profits that it could then use to subsidize the development of an electronic Yellow Pages, which would threaten one of their most profitable products, classified ads.
It was a bold argument. The newspaper industry had a higher rate of return on its investment than the phone company did. Nevertheless, the publishers were correct in seeing classified ads as the first thing they would lose as their business went online, though they missed the fact that the telephone company itself was about to be split into little bits and that it was some guy named Craig who would take this particular profit center from them.
Although it is hard to believe now, when The Washington Post can be bought by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for pocket change of $250 million, but just 15 or 20 years ago, before the commercial arrival of the Internet, there was no sweeter sinecure in American capitalism than owning the one newspaper in a one-newspaper town. And cities as large as Los Angeles and Washington had effectively become one-newspaper towns. It was heaven: you could earn huge monopoly profits from advertisers like the big department stores, which had nowhere else to go. You were automatically a civic leader. And if you got bored, or your family needed cash, you could sell out to Gannett, which always stood ready to gobble up monopoly newspapers and lower the tone. At symposia and seminars on the Future of Newspapers, professional worriers used to worry that these monopoly or near-monopoly newspapers were too powerful for society’s good.
It couldn’t go on, and therefore it didn’t.
Donald Graham, publisher of The Washington Post during the crucial years, understood what a sweet deal his paper had. To the frustration of many Post reporters, Graham resisted all temptations to spend millions trying to compete with The New York Times as a national newspaper. Except for two or three bedraggled copies, often yesterday’s edition, you rarely ran into the Post outside the Beltway (or maybe in central Manhattan). Today the Post is, through no fault of Don Graham’s, an international newspaper, easily available anywhere in the world. But financially it’s a basket case, as are most other newspapers. In 2000, the Tribune Company paid $8.3 billion for the Los Angeles Times and several smaller papers. Today the Tribune Company wants to sell all its newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune itself, and can’t seem to find a buyer at any price. The New York Times Company bought The Boston Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion and sold it for $70 million in 2013.
But why did this happen? What happened to all that money newspapers were supposed to save? Well, you save the money only if people are actually willing to give up the paper paper in favor of a computer screen. And at first people wouldn’t do it, unless the content was actually about computers, or pornography. “I don’t like reading on a computer screen” was the most familiar comment I heard when I started Slate, an online magazine, in 1996. Around that time, at a public panel discussion about (what else?) newspapers and the Internet (future of), a professor cut off a member of the audience who was making this point. “Your problem,” he intoned, “will be solved actuarially.” And he was right. Older people have died off and younger ones have been reading on a computer screen all their lives.
The change was not merely demographic, however. Fashion has changed, incredibly quickly. Really, in just the past three or four years. On an airplane, it has become strange to see anyone lugging an old-fashioned book. Any sense that e-books are déclassé or unsuitable for serious reading has simply evaporated. One man is responsible: Jeff Bezos, with the Kindle. His legitimation of electronic reading will be seen as a far more important contribution to saving newspapers than his purchase of the Post. (Note: my wife is a director at Amazon.)
Bezos deserves less credit (but maybe not a lot less) for another key development: the willingness of people to pay for online content. It’s been a two-step process, and it’s not over yet: first, getting people to pay online for hard goods, like a book, and then getting people to pay online for online goods, like a newspaper.
A second reason the predictable bonanza for newspapers didn’t materialize immediately was that they lost their comfortable monopoly. Now, instead of being the only newspaper in town, every English-language newspaper in the world is competing with every other one. They are also competing with new ways to compile and deliver news, made possible by this new technology. Some of these new ways amount to theft of traditional papers’ content—though it goes by the fancy name of “aggregation,” or the even fancier name of “curation.”
A successful aggregation Web site can be far cheaper to run than a traditional news organization, some of which still hire grown-ups and send them to expensive places where news is actually happening. One of the major aggregators, who has taken an old property and made it profitable for the first time in a century, took me on a tour of his new aggregation facility, somewhere deep in the Maryland suburbs, where rent is cheap. It was a pathetic sight. Dozens of recent college graduates—paid 75 cents an hour—sat chained to their computers grinding out blog items, while editors stood above them with whips, shouting, “Blog, you worthless scum. Blog more. A dozen new items by lunchtime or there’ll be no day-old pizza for anyone. Blog, I tell you,” and so forth. (Or maybe, come to think of it, I imagined that scene. Just as I did the quote that follows.)
Probably the most successful of the aggregators is Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post—named as a gentle poke in the eye to The Washington Post—was sold to AOL for more than The Washington Post went for. Arianna said, “Darling, what is all this fuss? I ask you: how is what we do any different from what is on the op-ed page every day of the week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . . What comes after Wednesday, darling? Where is my assistant? Anyway, we read the newspaper and comment on it. They read the newspaper and comment on it. Has Nicholas Kristof ever been sold into slavery? Has Tom Friedman been to Ukraine? Well, perhaps he has, but you see my point, darling. Everybody aggregates. Let him who is without sin . . . who said that, by the way? I believe the Huffington Post will say it very soon. Perhaps tomorrow. May I borrow your cell phone?”
In a couple of recent speeches, the C.E.O. of the New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, has suggested that the high quality of the Times’s content—the very quality that alarmists claim is becoming unaffordable as a result of bloggers and other cheap competition—will be the paper’s salvation, because people will pay real money for it. (He cautions that the Times is sui generis and that this high-quality strategy won’t work for ordinary, run-of-the-mill papers such as . . . any paper other than the Times.) With admirable, or possibly insane, frankness, he says the Times’s intention is to reduce reliance on advertising and to squeeze its most loyal readers as much as possible to pay for the content they consume.
“The first plank of our new strategy,” Thompson said, “is to develop additional pay offerings aimed at those who tell us they would certainly pay us something for Times journalism but less than the $200 or so which is our current lowest digital subscription—though we also intend to create enhanced offerings for those who tell us they would pay us even more.” He promised “fresh expressions of our journalism . . . with their own integrity and appeal.” And: “Despite any false rumors you may have heard to the contrary, all editorial leadership rests—as it always should and will”—with the editorial side. That is, news will not be influenced by advertisers. (“Native advertising” is the delightful but bewildering euphemism for advertising that looks like editorial content. Its main effect is to make editorial content look like advertising.)
There will always be a demand for high-quality news—enough demand to support two or three national newspapers, on papyrus scrolls if necessary. And the truth is that if only two or three newspapers survive, in national or global competition, that will still be more competition than we have now, with our collection of one-paper-town monopolies. A second truth is that most newspapers aren’t very good and wouldn’t be missed by anybody who could get The New York Times or USA Today and some bloggy source of local news. A third truth is that former roadblocks—people’s refusal to get their content online or to pay for it—are melting away like the snow. A fourth truth is that rich foundations and individuals appear downright eager to jump in and supply foreign or other prestige news if newspapers won’t. Former Times executive editor Bill Keller just quit the paper to help start a nonprofit to cover justice issues. Paul Steiger, formerly managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, founded ProPublica—a nonprofit that produces top-quality investigative journalism.
Somewhere in that agglomeration of developments, newspapers will survive in some form or other at least equal to any available today. It will all work out somehow.