by Ryan Bolton
“Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism; when a great one goes, like the New York Herald Tribune, history itself is denied a devoted witness.” —Richard Kluger, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The print industry I grew up admiring is dying. But even as its own narcissistic headlines bemoan the death of print, the industry is still trying to hang in there … even if it means slashing its integrity by going to bed with the advertisers instead of the readers.
As a neophyte journalist, the print industry I am clumsily ambling into is clinging to the almost-extinct talons of corporate advertisers. The New Yorker tells us that a quarter of all newspaper jobs have disappeared since 1990. Print editions are hemorrhaging readers. The money has dried up as the Infobahn soaks up the attention of the readers and, more importantly to the future of the publication, advertisers.
Newspapers originally fought hard to hold public figures accountable – they broke Watergates-esque investigative pieces and generally sought to serve the public as the respected fourth estate – and the industry grew with its successes. Newspapers were a trusted source and circulations climbed to record numbers.
As readership grew, advertisers, of course, ate it up. This is where the leak started. In order to sell newspapers, the industry shifted its accountability to the advertiser. They were the ones now paying the salaries. The print world carved out its own niche to better serve its advertisers, not its readers. Newspapers shifted to a 60/40 ad-to-content ratio, which has now fallen to 70/30 or worse in some cases. The print model became fundamentally flawed. It was just a waiting game until the bottom fell out.
It was poor judgment to build a public enterprise on an advertiser-dependent structure. Of course there was going to be a time when the advertisers jumped ship. In this year’s first quarter, US newspaper print advertising sales plummeted by nearly 30 percent, according to the Newspaper Association of America. And thanks to Craigslist and Kijiji, the classified ads – once newspapers’ bread and butter – plunged by 42 percent. It’s the biggest fall since 1971 (the earliest date figures were collected). And it’s no surprise that the advertisers dumped their coin into the Internet. Some $1 billion in American advertising shifted from print and TV to the web in 2008.
Relying on an advertiser-supported business model is archaic, not to mention dangerous. If it is to survive, the print industry needs to revisit the era when they answered to the reader. When they fought to bring down crooked politicians instead of fighting to clutch onto advertisers. As we can all see now, the advertisers were never loyal companions anyway.
A version of this article originally appeared on Adbusters.