News periodicals, “newspapers,” printed on paper are dying.
Not that this news about the news is news — not after Newsweek was literally sold for a dollar. Understanding why the newspapers are dying isn’t hard either; it’s the internet that’s killing them. Where it gets interesting is why the internet is killing newspapers.
If we want to understand that, first we need to dispose of some media mythology. Since the ’60s (at least) journalists have wanted to proclaim themselves a sort of secular priesthood, above bias, unaffected by politics, objective and aloof; most news organizations took great pains to say they had completely disconnected the newsroom from any hint of mere trade — although journalists took much pride in doing things that sold papers.
Well, forget it. As a business, newspapers do one thing: they sell advertising. All the content in the newspaper that isn’t advertising is just there because, the company hopes, it will attract people who will then see the advertising. All of the journalism-school preening about how Journalism Is A Profession is a self-important fantasy. So if we want to understand what’s happening to newspapers, it’s the advertising business we want to understand.
Stripped to its basics, advertising is simply a way to let people who might buy your widget know that you’re selling a widget. The smallest, simplest form of advertising is the guy going door to door selling vacuum cleaners. (Younger readers: yes, they really did that. Honest.) You had vacuum cleaners to sell, so you went door to door, asking for the lady of the house, and demonstrating how well your vacuum cleaners, well, sucked.
Now, anyone who has tried this knows that a pretty large proportion of the ladies of the house just said “no thanks.” A good salesman learned what neighborhoods to visit and what houses to choose to have the best chance of making a sale, and a really effective salesman learned how to make their product so attractive that they got from simply getting in the door to leaving with a check. And every salesman learns you have to expect a lot of “noes” for every “yes.”