Media’s Fatal Flaw: Ignoring the Mistakes of Newspapers

Last week, layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett landed like consecutive punches. The information signaled a troublesome 12 months forward for an business already mired in perpetual uncertainty.



Jeremy Littau is an affiliate professor within the Department of Journalism and Communication at Lehigh University who research networked data environments and its impact on society.

For some, the squeezing and shrinking of media firms would possibly really feel like extra of the identical, however not all layoffs are created equal. The downfall of Gannett—an exemplar of failed newspaper methods—is instructive in navigating the way forward for digital media. Decades of monopolist considering meant information organizations turned a blind eye to their audiences’ wants.

Newspapers, the story goes, made its first tragic mistake when the web grew to become publicly accessible by giving freely its content material at no cost. That deadly alternative gave the general public a way that information had no worth and disincentivized individuals from paying for content material in the long term. But this generally advised cautionary story oversimplifies the difficulty.

The drawback with that view is it’s ahistorical. Readership for newspapers has been declining because the early 1970s. By the 1980s, GenXers rising up in newspaper-reading households had been more and more shunning the format, 12 months over 12 months. For a sensible newspaper firm, the web introduced a possibility to seize younger readers who hadn’t shaped the newspaper habits of their mother and father.

That alternative was wasted. Most newspaper chains had been publicly traded firms that had conditioned traders to count on excessive revenue margins, typically in extra of 30 %. An organization that wished to arrange itself for a digital future would have been spending these earnings on R&D. But as a result of readership was dropping—even whereas newspapers had been wildly worthwhile—firms met investor expectations by making delicate cuts to newsrooms, freezing positions and leaving openings unfilled.

Media’s actual tragic mistake was that by the point the web got here round, it was handled as a spot to dump content material, a “shovelware” technique. Treating the web like a newspaper represented a critical misjudgment of the platform. The web wasn’t simply paper—it was additionally the paperboy. It was a content material, platform, and distribution mannequin multi functional.

Newspapers had been gradual to understand that that they had been working in a pseudo-monopoly for years, one neatly outlined by the boundaries of geography and know-how. They basically misunderstood the distribution function of the web.

Yes, communities want native tales to really feel linked to the individuals they reside close to. But in addition they purchased the paper as a result of they wanted crossword puzzles, TV guides, climate reviews, comedian strips, categorised adverts, assist wished postings, and commercials for merchandise and gross sales.

The unintentional brilliance of the newspaper enterprise mannequin is it commoditized all these data must an viewers that, pre-internet, had no different alternative. You desire a climate report? The newspaper had it. Looking for a job? The newspaper had it. Newspapers owned their readership, which had many wants however few selections. Advertisers confirmed up in droves to capitalize on this holy grail—a captive viewers that may be reliably delivered in an outlined house.

The web modified the whole lot. The climate grew to become a web site, then an app. TV guides went on-line and have become interactive and customizable. Classifieds grew to become searchable and interconnected throughout areas, then states, and ultimately the nation.

Suddenly, all of the issues individuals had as soon as trusted newspapers for had been on-line and free. When you give individuals new selections, they ask exhausting questions concerning the worth of the outdated product. The miserable reply: conventional newspapers weren’t value a lot to a group whose information wants had been more and more regional and nationwide, however whose native data wants had been now free.

This uncovered among the fissures that newspapers had with their viewers, ones that had been solely knowable, but hidden by monopoly considering. The most evident instance is political variations, the notion that conservatives mistrust a media they see as too liberal. But there have been different rifts. People of coloration and ladies have lengthy complained about how they had been portrayed in information, a sentiment backed by a long time of educational analysis. The web gave these already dissatisfied viewers segments new selections—and motive to go away newspapers behind.

This historical past is necessary as a result of it represents a strategy to ahead as we remake the information for a consistently altering panorama. I’m bullish on the way forward for information as a result of society nonetheless has data wants. That isn’t going to vary, whilst the best way we get our information continues to evolve.

Journalism has been gradual to understand its aggressive benefit was all the time in being embedded in communities and serving the general public curiosity. Technology made newspapers’ dominance attainable in a pre-internet world, and a lack of information concerning the menace—and alternative—of recent applied sciences has been their downfall.

Remaking information methods, notably for native information, begins with listening. Some of probably the most promising information improvements of the previous decade, such because the Texas Tribune in Austin, Texas, have constructed their complete technique round viewers engagement and group wants. Joy Mayer’s Trusting News venture, which helps newsrooms strategize the way to have interaction readers in significant methods, is one other instance. Despite final week’s layoffs, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are each doing modern experiments in viewers engagement and analysis (HuffPost with social media areas, BuzzFeed with information) which can be doubtless driving among the useful resource selections at these firms.

Each new spherical of layoffs and shuttered newspapers provides the business an opportunity to remake one thing higher. An viewers uncared for by newspapers turns into an entrepreneurial alternative for another person. But we must be taught from newspapers’ errors. Rebuilding native media begins with determining what individuals really need and wish from their information, now that the surplus has been stripped away.

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