The Newspaper Cataclysm

When Worlds Collide. (Elements of this licensed image furnished by NASA)

[Originally published in the April 8, 2020, edition of the Digital Deliverance newsletter]

Welcome to what I dare to call the Newspaper Cataclysm! The financial disaster unfolding for the daily newspaper industries due to the coronavirus pandemic is a late-stage event in an even greater struggle that has been underway in the media environment for more than 25 years. Though the recession caused by the pandemic will kill many (possibly very many) daily newspapers, their real cause of death won’t be the pandemic or recession but those newspapers’ weakened state caused by an epochal change underway in the media environment.

Most publishing or broadcasting pundits circulate any of several shopworn excuses for the financial and popular usage decline of newspapers, news magazines, and news broadcasts during the past decades. The most frequently uttered are that avaricious corporate chain ownerships of media companies have slashed newsrooms to levels that can no longer produce services that consumers want to use; or that consumers simply no longer care at all about news; or if consumers care, then they still won’t pay for news because they’ve become used to obtaining information for free online; or that no one has yet found the ‘missing’ business model that will allow newspaper to earn revenues as great online as they had earned in print.

However, none of those myopic excuses is the real reason why the newspaper industry has begun to evaporate. Although it is true that corporate chain owners of newspapers, which comprise some 95 percent of the U.S. industry, have bled newsrooms dry, independently owned newspapers and those owned by not-for-profit foundations have suffered the same financial and popular usage declines as chain-bled ones. Multiple surveys (the most recent example) show that consumers do care about news and are willing to pay something for it, but not anywhere as much as they had been paying decades ago when newspapers had been their only locally-accessible sources of daily changing information in print. And there never was any ‘missing’ business model that will allow newspapers to regain the revenues and the audiences that they had had in print. The fundamental reason why the newspaper industry is failing is more than these banal excuses.

In each era of history, the theories, doctrines, practices, and business models of its media have always been defined by the technologies of that era. The reach of the voices of actors or priests and the sightlines of the props in royal courts, theaters, and churches wasn’t far, nor the range of town criers, during the Agricultural Era. Although some people date the start of the Industrial Era to the rise of powered machinery during the late 1700s, I date it to Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press in 1454. His machinery began mass production: books, newspapers, and magazines. It was the invention of Mass Media. Four and one-half centuries later in the Industrial Era, Marconi’s practical invention of the broadcast transmitter began to extend the reach of Mass Media worldwide. Unfortunately, there was a hallmark limitation to all mechanical (i.e., analog) printing presses and all analog waveform transmitters: they had mass reach but each recipient of that printed edition or that broadcast program schedule simultaneously received the exact same edition or broadcast. They had reach but analog uniformity. That might have been fine if every recipient had an identical mix of individual needs, interests, beliefs, and tastes; yet individual humans don’t. Nonetheless, this was the best Industrial Era technologies could do. The theories, doctrines, practices, and business models of Mass Media arose from within that hallmark limitation.

That limitation does not exist with computer-mediated technologies. The legacy media companies of the waning Industrial Era that have tried to transplant newspaper contents, practices, business models, doctrines, and theories into computer-mediated media (i.e., online, colloquially known as ‘digital’) either because it saves them purchasing, printing, and distributing paper or simply because billions of consumer have switched media consumption habits online, are too shortsighted to see that the media environment has been fundamentally transformed by computerization and liberated from Mass Media limitations.

As the Informational Era dawns, an entirely new genus of media, functionally different and distinct from Mass Media, rises with it. This genus has as much or more the mass reach as Mass Media, yet also can simultaneously deliver a unique mix of contents according to each recipient’s individual mix of needs, interests, beliefs, and tastes. Each of those unique mixes isn’t merely personalized (i.e, ‘a uniform golf ball but with your name printed on it’) or even customized (i.e., a uniform product to which parts have been added or subtracted), but a bespoke mix from its onset, and ideally with component parts selected not just from one source (i.e., a publisher, broadcaster, or other entity) but from all sources practicable. It delivers a fully individuated product or service for its consumer. These products and service truly are ‘New Media’, fitting with Steuer’s classic definition of interactivity, in striking functional contrast to Industrial Era legacy periodicals and broadcasts consigned to online delivery and erroneously called ‘new media’.

Each of us alive shares a few common interests (the weather, news of a disaster or pandemic, etc.) Many of us also share some group interests (a sport team, a popular cuisine, a fashion, etc.) Yet each of us has myriad idiosyncratic or specific interests, including some of which we might not know anyone with whom we share. It is the unique mix of common, group, and idiosyncratic interests, beliefs, and tastes that makes each of us individual. Imagine that previously in your life you had always been served the same meal as everyone else, but now you have access to a gargantuan buffet from which you could select whatever mix of items that you think best matches your individual needs, interests, and tastes. Would you continue consuming uniform meals or choose that buffet? I think it self-evident that most people would switch to the buffet, the more articulate means by which they can satisfy their individual needs, interests, and tastes. Billions of consumers have been making that same switch online thanks to the New Media.

So far, three general categories of Individualized Media have appeared during these early decades of the Informational Era. Each category is unprecedented in the history of media:

  • The first and earliest is Search Engines. Although the world has had printed directories and encyclopedia, none were ever live (i.e., news updated with minutes, other listings within days); capable of parsing users’ questions; and delivering more information worldwide than had ever before been published and broadcast. Most consumers use Search Engines not for contents that the users could readily find in whatever Mass Media are locally based and distributed, but instead for more idiosyncratic contents. And no two individual users likely ever search for the same mix. (Indeed, for example, 15% of all Google searches terms each day have never been searched for before.) Consumers began using Search Engines in the 1990s to hunt and gather a better mix of contents to their individual needs, interests, beliefs, and tastes than Mass Media could give them. Is Google a Mass Media company? Its worldwide reach is absolutely mass, processing 3.5 billion searches each day. it is ranked the #1 website in the world by traffic, and it receives 32.3% of the world’s online advertising expenditures, at Mass Media’s loss.
  • During the following decade, many New Media companies were launched to give those consumers automated help hunting and gathering individuated mixes of contents. Colloquially known as Social Media, these new services have long been mistaken by Mass Media executives as somehow supplemental services to Mass Media, as if social media were merely electronic bulletin boards instead of so much more. Social Media (such as Facebook, Sina Weibo, Vkontakte, Twitter, Renren, etc.) are now the primary means by which people under the age of 35 obtain news, entertainment, and other information. Social Media consumers receive an individuated feed of contents based upon their ‘Likes’, ‘Follows’, and network of ‘Friends’ (i.e., collaborative filtering). Facebook itself now has 2.5 billion users and 22% of the world’s online ad spending (83% of the world’s Social Media ad spending). Does all that make Facebook a Mass Media company? It certainly has mass reach, yet quite unlike Mass Media products, even those of the Industrial Era’s last decades, none of Facebook’s 2.5 billion users simultaneously sees the same mix of contents; each sees a uniquely individuated mix. Like Search Engines, Social Media products and services are Individuated Media.
  • The third category of Individuated Media arising hasn’t yet a colloquial name (such as ‘Search Engines’ or ‘Social Media’) but instead are individuated media transformations of what Mass Media executives would call topical (or ‘niche’) products and services. Each focusing on a single genre of media contents, examples of such services include Pandora, Spotify, and Flipboard. Each of these a highly customized or individuated mix of music or of news to each of their users, according to each user’s interests and tastes. Pandora and Spotify nowadays each have more listeners than any commercial radio station or music network (the sole exception: government-owned China Central Television). Flipboard’s 145 million users number far more (4x) than the readers of any news or features magazine in the world, yet each sees an individuated mix of contents changing daily.

Half of humanity, 3.8 billion people, now use at least one Individuated Media service daily, if not multiple ones many times per day. None of those services existed a generation ago. And most of those billions of people use Individuated Media at the expense of Mass Media products and services, even though those products and services provide some components of Individuated Media contents. Online advertising already comprises the 68% of the $563 billion spent annually on all forms of advertising, and Individuated Media services such as Google and Facebook command more than 60% of that majority of the world’s advertising. Individuated Media aren’t supplemental to Mass Media; instead, Individuated Media is rapidly superseding Mass Media, and not coincidentally much as the Informational Era has been superseding the Industrial Era in the world’s developed countries.

All Individuated Media products & services are entirely dependent upon computer-mediated algorithms, much as almost all aviation nowadays is dependent upon locomotive technologies. While Individuated Media delivers the benefits of better mixes of contents that match each individual’s unique needs, interests, beliefs, and tastes, like most other revolutionary technological advancements, it also creates new risks. Although degrees of serendipity can be built into its algorithms, some of its consumers can use it to omit receiving information that is contrary to their beliefs or prejudices. Editors can no longer set a ‘common agenda’ for the consumers in their community who use it rather than Industrial Era’s legacy Mass Media. Nor can advertisers as easily force ‘eyeballs’ to see their ads as they could with Mass Media. Thus, many of the theories, doctrines, practices, and business models of Individuated Media are different than those of Mass Media, despite many commonalities.

The Introduction page of the U.S. Congressional Research Service’s 2010 research report, The U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition, quotes me predicting “that more than half of the approximately 1,400 daily newspapers in the country could be out of business by the end of the next decade.” I now admit that what I hadn’t anticipated then was the rise during the past nine years of what I’ve since termed ‘zombie newspapers’, ones that have reduced their physically size and local news coverage to less than what their editors a decade ago would have felt prudent or sensible. Nevertheless, I’ve long felt that when the collapse of half of the U.S. newspaper industry came, it would arrive (to paraphrase Hemingway’s remark about bankruptcies) gradually and then suddenly. The actual end of the second decade arrives in eight months. I still stand behind my 2010 prediction. Much like how the coronavirus will kill mostly the old and frail, its economics effects will kill mostly old and obsolete media, which means much of the 400-year old newspaper industry.

— Vin Crosbie

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