I just finished reading John Stackhouse’s new book, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of the Media Revolution.
In it, Stackhouse—a long-time journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail--chronicles the steep decline of the newspaper industry, in particular, but all media, in general, due to the disruption caused by the digital age.
It’s a sobering read.
He writes about how print advertising—the lifeblood of a newspaper—plunged from a high of $65.8 billion in 1999 in the U.S. to about $20 billion now.
Some of those ads have moved online, but it doesn’t begin to cover the loss. For every $1 billion in lost print ad revenue, only $200 million comes back digitally, he says.
At the same time, newspapers have seen their circulations fall, and newsrooms reduced by cuts.
The digital revolution also changed newspapers in other ways.
Before moving online, newsrooms were run on “a sort of informed whim,” he writes. “The smartest and most vocal people in a story meeting tended to win the day.”
With digital, however, there was no need for whim. Editors and reporters knew exactly what people were reading.
For example, the Globe found that roughly 40 percent of the paper was being read by only about 1,000 people—hardly comforting to those who worked hard to produce those articles.
Some welcomed this new knowledge, he says, but not all. Some journalists still believed that they, not readers, should decide what is important and worthy of coverage.
What they need to deal with, Stackhouse states, is “the fact they no longer controlled the reading experience.”
If this new reality is tough for journalists, it’s a boon for readers. We have never had it so good. There’s “an entire planet of information” at our fingertips, he says.
Old Model Broken
Most of us get that information digitally, usually on our phones. Not through print, TV or radio. And few media outlets have figured out how to make money that way.
The old model for sharing news was paid for by advertising. But advertisers no longer need newspapers (or other media) to reach customers.
And, if they do, they aren’t willing to pay as much as they used to—certainly not when its online. (The so-called dollars-to-dimes, or pennies, media universe we now live in.)
It’s similar for classified ads, which once yielded huge profit for newspapers. They have disappeared to places like Kijiji. (The New York Times estimates its losses in classified ads to equal half the cost of running its entire newsroom.)
The tragedy for Stackhouse is that things could have been different.
Journalists knew the world was changing back in the 1990s, but failed to start making the steps needed to adapt to the new digital world.
Part of the reason is how well the media was doing well back then. Profits were high and things looked great. Newspapers made huge investments in new offices and print redesigns.
(The Winnipeg Free Press moved from downtown to a $150 million new building with a printing press in the suburbs—a decision they likely regret now.)
The Wrong War
And they went to war against each other. Stackhouse devotes a chapter, titled “The Wrong War,” to the huge competition between the Globe, the then-new National Post and the Toronto Star.
Unfortunately, they were fighting the wrong enemies. The real enemy was Google, and all the other digital upstarts that aggregated and, later, created news and other content. (Without the burden of buildings, expensive reporters, printing presses, union contracts and other legacy burdens.)
But change is hard, says Stackhouse.
“I have sympathy with their (newspapers) plight,” he writes. “Adapting multimillion-dollar firms on the fly is hard. Very few industries attempt it until it’s forced on them.”
And now it is being forced on them. It isn’t pretty. Anyone who cares about journalism grieves the losses of the many good people who have been downsized, and the publications that have closed.
So: Will newspapers survive? That’s a good question. Stackhouse says the book is not an obituary.
“It is a journey through the news model . . . to see where fundamental change is needed and can be found.”
Among other things, he says that newspaper owners need to be patient; advertisers need to re-evaluate their association with newspapers; governments need to be supportive; and journalists “need to see their work as entrepreneurial and competitive, not tenured and enshrined.”
And readers? We “need to accept the cost of news—in time and attention, as well as in money,” he states.
Stackhouse concludes by saying this crisis may have given everyone—publishers, journalists, advertisers and readers—the sort of wake-up call that was missed earlier.
“There’s still time . . . to forge a better future for news,” he says.
Is he right? Part of me hopes so, but part of me wonders if the world hasn’t changed so much and so fast that there is, in fact, no future for the kind of newsgathering institutions that once dominated the sharing of information.
I also wonder if the appetites of media consumers have changed so dramatically that there's no longer any need for traditional journalists or journalism.
Writers like Stackhouse, and other observers of the decline of the media, lament what the loss of newspapers will do for our society and democracy. But what if people really don’t care about the news as much any more? What if we’d really rather watch cat videos and read listicles about celebrities? What then?
But those are different questions. Maybe someone will write a book about that one day.