Who Killed Journalism?

Spoiler alert: not the internet.

I was in journalism school in 1993 when someone from Halifax’s now defunct Daily News visited our class, to explain how newspapers could use a new technology called “The World Wide Web.” They demonstrated the cutting edge of interactivity at the time, a cartoon where you hit a politician on the head with a hammer. The politician made a funny face and a noise when you whacked him. We laughed, filed it away as light entertainment, and got on with the serious business of learning how to report the news. We should have paid more attention. Virtually every news outlet in the world similarly underestimated, misunderstood or ignored the internet’s impact on their business until it was too late. As a result, we may be witnessing journalism’s final death throws.

26 years after that cartoon, journalism still fundamentally doesn’t understand the internet. Newspapers have had over almost 30 years to come to grips with the online world. The fact that they haven’t is due less to the internet and more to bad management.

The internet will kick your ass

30 years is an eternity online, but peanuts in the history of journalism: newspapers have been around for about 350 years. That difference in time span might explain journalism’s inability to adjust and keep pace with technology, but doesn’t excuse it. Three missteps highlight that inability to change:

  1. Insistence on the subscription model.
  2. Misuse of paywalls.
  3. Ignoring the problem until too late.

I don’t subscribe to your point of view

Subscriptions are a relic from a time when you could save money by signing up for a year’s worth of news. On one hand, it was cheaper than buying a newspaper at the corner every day, and on the other it provided dependable, yearly revenue to the publishers. Subscriptions worked well when people had no choice but to receive a large chunk of dead tree on their doorstep daily, and had to wade through ads and sections they weren’t interested in, to get to the stuff they wanted. You paid for all of it: the stuff you wanted and the stuff you didn’t, because you had no say in the matter.

People now have a very large say in the matter. We cherry-pick the content we’re interested in. Editors no longer dictate what content we receive, which makes the subscription model not only irrelevant, but undesirable. Why pay for an automotive or lifestyle section you’re not interested in? Why pay for something to be delivered every day if you only want to read it when something tweaks your fancy?

Unfortunately, journalism has been unable to imagine a future without subscriptions. Micro-payments haven’t taken off, which leaves publishers to either put up a paywall or bleed cash. The former rarely work, and the latter is a dead-end.

The great paywall of nope

Paywalls generally haven’t worked, because (surprise) people aren’t willing to pay for something they can get for free, and until every journalism outfit in the world starts coordinating their efforts, you can usually find a free version of any given story somewhere.

Paywalls also reduce readership, forcing newspapers to choose between a smaller readership that pays for the product, or a larger one they can monetize for ad revenue. It’s a devil’s bargain, and the paper loses either way.

Time was on their side

There’s no easy fix for journalism’s cyber-woes. However, after almost 30 years of the World Wide Web, no major news outlet has been able to come up with a more creative response than forcing people to pay for something they can get for free. This is neither a vision for the future, nor a strategy, nor management acumen: it’s what happens when you ignore a problem until you can’t anymore. 30 years is more than enough time to figure out how to make micropayments, a hybrid subscription model or any other number of revenue models work. The fact that no major outlet has found a way out of this mess is a failure of imagination and management.

If journalism ultimately goes belly-up, it won’t be the fault of the public, the reporters or the editors. It will be the people at the head who ignored the problem, and lacked the creativity and vision to find a way to make it work.