When I was in college, my friends and I were obsessed with a piece of science fiction. Epic 2014 is an eight minute video describing the fall of the Fourth Estate. The story begins with fact — the invention of the Internet, the introduction of Amazon.com, the rise of Google. Then, as the narrative thread moves into the future, the voice lays out a plausible vision of history where Google and Microsoft become the dominant forces in media. In 2014, after losing a major court case, The New York Times gives up, goes offline, and becomes “a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”
We’re still five years away from that prediction, but according to Paul Farhi — a writer for The Washington Post — there is already a growing movement for newspapers to retreat from the Web. For Farhi, writing for the American Journalism Review, that decision seems to make a kind of sense. He says:
A massive migration back to print would restore some balance to the industry’s crippled supply and demand equation. If there were truly no other place on the Web for readers to get the valuable information that daily newspapers provide exclusively each day – local news and photos, enterprise reporting, columnists, ads from local businesses, etc. – advertising dollars would have to follow.
This line of thinking both confuses newspapers with journalism and assumes that all news outlets share the same interests.
Newspapers — built around business models that did not anticipate the economics of the Internet — struggle to make money online. But it’s only half-true that, as Farhi writes, “online news sites aren’t exactly cash cows.” Sites like TMZ and Talking Points Memo have found ways to make money and cover breaking news (albeit in radically different ways). All the talk of Huffington Post as nothing more than an aggregator ignores the fact that the site employs a stable of reporters who break important stories regularly.
In the world of EPIC 2014 — which so fascinated me as an undergrad — the Fourth Estate exists only as an afterthought. The business of news and commentary is directed by individuals and organizations outside of traditional media and stitched together for publication by the algorithms of technology companies. While the bulk of the media delivered by today’s aggregators comes from newspapers, every day, more and more content is created by those who aren’t traditional journalists. If every newspaper in the United States were to retreat from the Web, it would only create more incentives for media entrepreneurs to find new ways to use the Internet to fill the void.
Luckily, we will never see that kind of coordinated action from the nation’s newspapers. If some go offline or put their content behind expensive paywalls, others will embrace the opportunity to attract new readers. They’ll be joined by news outlets that don’t need to make a profit (like the BBC and NPR) and those who have found new kinds of business models online. The costs of producing news online are so low that it will always make sense for those who are willing to innovate. (Sidebar: In one bullet point, Farhi notes that, “Eliminating Web offerings would save precious dollars now being spent on a product that does little more than undercut the printed paper.” He complains that newspapers have devoted resources to publishing blogs, Twitter feeds, and online video. Yet all these tools are available for use by any individual — journalist or otherwise — for a grand cost of zero. Perhaps a basic economics lesson is in order)
The hard truth that newspapers need to embrace is that their business model is already broken. Craigslist has already killed the cash cow that was the classified ad. An entire generation of readers has come of age without a newspaper subscription. There is no going back to the time that was. The thought that there is a future for journalism without the Internet is a dangerous fantasy.