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May 2, 2018, 9:32 a.m.
Business Models

Why the “golden age” of newspapers was the exception, not the rule

“In our ‘news’ today we can see the tattler, the party pamphlet, the recondite journal of opinion, the yellow rag, the journal of commerce, the sob sister, the literary journal, and the progressive muckraker.”

Journalists pride themselves on knowing their history when it comes to politics and economics, but they are notoriously ahistorical about their own profession. They treat the idea of fair, fact-based journalism — what some call objectivity — the way the College of Cardinals treated the virgin birth, a miracle that sprang from the purest of intentions. In fact, this type of journalism was a good business decision by newspaper owners. Balanced reporting brought in more readers and more advertisers who wanted to reach those readers at the same time that it happened to better inform the public.

Historical perspective has been strikingly absent from discussions of the troubles afflicting news media today. While enlightening in its own right, such a perspective may also help us find cures.

This is not to minimize the problems. A recent article in The Washington Post lamented that “newspapers have been dying in slow motion for two decades now.” News organizations, particularly local outfits, have shed reporters at a precipitous rate. Some 455,000 people worked in the news business in 1990; by early 2017, this had dropped by more than 50 percent to 173,900 employees.

But these lamentations have been overwrought because we tend to look at the past, when newspapers thrived, through rose-colored glasses. There are two problems with the rose-tinted narrative. First, it implicitly portrays the four-decade period from 1940 to 1980 as the apotheosis of a golden age for news. Second, it takes that period as the baseline for how news has always worked. In fact, this period was an anomaly in a longer, four-century history of news.

It’s almost an article of faith that the conditions enabling the pre-1980 period were set once and for all. They were not. This becomes more obvious when we consider the economics underpinning American journalism.

American journalism was expensive. It cost a huge amount of money to finance foreign bureaus, investigative reporting, state and national news bureaus, standalone Sunday book reviews, and specialized reporting on health, science, and business.

American newspaper owners could afford the cost. In the second half of the 20th century, their coffers brimmed. During that time, as Robert Picard has observed, “print media became one of the most profitable business in the developed world.” Newspapers had average annual returns of 12 percent; some enjoyed profits of 30 percent. During that same period, grocery store profits were in the 2 percent range and department stores around 4 percent. Owning a newspaper was basically a license to print money; news did not conform to the normal rules of business.

American mainstream news thrived in the post-war period because of a complex, interlocking set of subsidies. Advertisers subsidized American newspapers to reach the mass market of consumers. By the mid-20th century, advertisements brought in about 80 percent of newspaper revenue. Readers paid the remaining 20 percent, which roughly equaled the cost of delivery.

Readers also subsidized each other. The newspaper offered something for everyone. The reader who disregarded hard news paid for the paper to find out about sports scores, television listings, and job ads. Expensive news, like investigative journalism, was paid for by people who very often didn’t read it.

These subsidies were anomalous, however. Newspapers grew more profitable because others failed, allowing the survivors to attract ever-larger audiences. In effect, the rich became richer. But this set in motion a self-defeating dynamic. How could a newspaper acquire appreciably more readers when it was the only one in town? This might not have made a lot of difference for family-owned papers, who still enjoyed a decent income. But with increasing public ownership, growth matters. Stockholders wanted to see their value of their holdings appreciate beyond the rate of inflation. Cutting expenses for news-gathering was one way to achieve that.

Then there was the matter of competition from new media. Radio and television — which were “new” media once upon a time — initially provided a limited amount of news and in any event co-existed with newspapers, who came to realize that they attracted readers by including radio and television schedules in their news pages.

But the next wave of new media was a different matter. Competition soared with the Internet, because there was now such a low barrier to entry. Besides this, the Internet unbundled news. Consumers who wanted sports scores could get all they wanted online, all day, for free. Those consumers no longer subsidized other readers with different interests to the same extent. We all know what happened next: lost advertising revenue, accelerating declines in newspaper penetration, journalist layoffs.

Unbundling content has confronted journalists with a hard truth. Most readers did not care about foreign or political news as much as many journalists had imagined. Or at least, those readers did not care enough about that news to pay for it.

All these developments are less surprising when we consider the longer history of news. Newspapers have mostly struggled to make money or be the dominant provider of news. In trying to capture audience, their content was sensational, opinionated, irresponsible, and mean. Depending on ownership, newspapers were sometimes informative. That just happened far less often than the lamenters of bygone days imply.

Andrew Pettegree’s award-winning book The Invention of News explains how newspapers took nearly three centuries to become the dominant method to provide news. Newspapers were invented in the 1500s but only became the main way to consume news in the late 19th century. In between, American newspapers were elite products or subsidized by political parties. Most of the evidence points to newspapers returning to the status they once held before 1900. They will matter — but not to everyone.

For the centuries before the post-war golden decades, people gossiped about news, they sang songs, and they spread rumors. In the “early information society” of pre-revolutionary Paris, they gathered under a tree, the Tree of Cracow, to gossip about French elites — and make up stories about them.

Sound familiar?

A print depicting the Tree of Cracow circa 1742.

There are other ways that news today looks more like the 18th century than the 1980s. In Paris, as elsewhere, news was cosmopolitan; cities were hubs of information, just like today.

Social media platforms like Twitter are the new Trees of Cracow: they are the perfect places to spread rumors, jokes, and gossip. People operate independently, without editorial supervision, like English 17th-century chronicler John Aubrey, who combined second-hand information with his own witty observations in vignettes on notables. Individual observations can be packaged and repackaged into news (whether about cats on morning television news or bombs in Syria). The scope, speed, and scale of this many-to-many diffusion is new; the dynamic itself is not.

People have always cared about news. They have just found different modes to gather and consume it. The next decades will look more like the times before the golden age, when newspapers competed with many other methods to gather news.

This is not to say that American newspapers will not survive. Some will. But they will not assert the same dominance as during the mid-20th century. They will coexist with other models. In our “news” today we can see the tattler, the party pamphlet, the recondite journal of opinion, the yellow rag, the journal of commerce, the sob sister, the literary journal, and the progressive muckraker. The blog, an updated Tree of Cracow, and the amateur citizen journalist, toiling solitarily as Aubrey did, exist side-by-side with the school-trained reporter in a large newsroom.

What is happening now is not a break in the historical narrative of news. It is a partial return to the world of news that existed for far longer, as we have discussed at greater length in an academic article. American journalism is younger than American baseball. To expect this model to become permanent, whatever its virtues, is the equivalent of Athenians in 400 B.C. thinking that their quasi-democracy would not only last forever but also be widely emulated.

The 1940s to 1980s were a golden age for newspaper owners to make money and journalists to make news. But they were only a golden age for a certain group of people. Many citizens — women and African-Americans, to take just two examples — often did not see themselves in news reporting and had few opportunities to shape it. It is no surprise that most of those writing the laments for times gone by are white men. Those men have long practiced such lamentations. Even in the 1980s, discussions at the American Society for Newspaper Editors were filled with a “persistent nostalgia for a mythic golden age when news was better made and better respected by the public.”

It is imperative to preserve high-quality reliable journalism in this time when any inconvenient fact is labeled “fake news.” Today the very concept of truth is under attack and press institutions imperiled by political institutions. New sets of subsidies will be needed to ensure responsible reporting continues.

But laments based on a nostalgic idealization of how news worked before the Internet don’t help. This 20th-century moment was an exception in the history of news, not the rule. It is a hard truth to accept for many who believe in the value of news. But facing hard truths about the past of news is the best way to start planning for the future.

Heidi Tworek is assistant professor of international history at the University of British Columbia. John Maxwell Hamilton is Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University.

Photo of a man reading a newspaper circa 1966 by dlr_ used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 2, 2018, 9:32 a.m.
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