opinion | How the news business economics changed the news itself?


In unpleasant times – for example now – nostalgia can be a numbing agent. It is reasonable, however, to look back fondly on the days when newspapers were filled with advertisements for department stores, grocery stores, and car dealerships.

And news, much of it disturbing: The world is a fallen place, and, as journalists say, we don’t report on the planes landing safely. Yet newspapers were more important, and functioned differently, when they were supported substantially by local business ads, rather than, as increasingly, by digital subscriptions from readers.

So says Andrey Mir in “How the Media Polarized Us” in the City Journal of the Manhattan Institute. The title of Mir’s essay treats ‘media’ and ‘newspapers’, his main topics, as synonyms. But social media and cable television have drawn newspapers in their direction.

Mir, the author of “Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers,” says the Internet is the culprit because it has destroyed the monopoly that newspapers had to gather for advertisers a broad audience of the kind of readers advertisers value — affluent and mature. The ‘dependence of newspapers on advertising’, Mir believes, ‘determined their attitude towards their readers’. It was a respectful attitude towards readers who want to make their own judgment and are averse to political agendas that are at the forefront of reporting.

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

“Even the strongest US newspapers,” says Mir, “couldn’t hold on to advertisers: The New York Times started generating more revenue from readers in 2012 than from advertising.” So “journalism was now looking for new partners”: digital subscriptions, the multiplication of which could be driven by anger and fear, the fertilizers of polarization. Editors “stirred the digitized, urban, educated and progressive youth into political outrage.”

The newspaper’s ad-based business model, which appealed to the moderate middle class of society, “restrained the natural liberal disposition of journalists.” The digital subscription business model “elevated the role of progressive discourse producers” — academics and other social justice warriors — and “empowered activism as a mindset.” The new model is defined by “intensity of self-expression in the pursuit of response.” By the early 2010s, “the ad-dictated need to appeal to the median American,” Mir says, had been replaced by the pursuit of 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 18- to 49-year-olds. A more conservative demographic crossed this threshold in 2016, the year of a political earthquake that envisioned mainstream media outlets a commodity they could sell to digital subscribers — Donald Trump as “existential danger.”

Suddenly, Mir says, subscriptions can be requested as “charity donations” – “the resistance” and all. “The shock came to replace news as a commodity.” This new business model “made the media agents of polarization.” Right-wing outlets quickly learned the new game of selling the terror of terror rather than news — the fear of being demographically “replaced”, of K-12 political and sexual indoctrination, etc.

Mir believes that all this has led to ‘postjournalism’, where the mainstream media does not deliver news but ‘news validation’, the validation of news that is disturbing ‘within certain value systems’. This business model—media as “agents of polarization”—results in the stratification of newspapers because, Mir says, it brings big rewards to just a few nationally important newspapers:

“People want disturbing news validated by an authoritative notary with a larger following. The public only wants to pay for flagship media such as: the New York Times or the Washington Post. … Most subscription money flows to a few giants. The new subscription model has not only led to media polarization, but also to media concentration.”

Mir says that where journalism used to want its world view to fit the world, ‘postjournalism wants the world to fit its view’. This, he says, “is a definition of propaganda. Post-journalism has turned the media into the crowdfunded Ministries of Truth.” Although he paints with a broad brush and few pastels, there is an adjective that fits his portrayal of the contemporary media world: newsworthy.

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