News Isn’t the Only Thing the Internet’s Changing

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If the industry is, in fact, evolving into something new - a combination of print and digital - journalists aren't the only ones who'll be forced to adapt.

In 2008, the Internet overtook newspapers as a news source, according to the Pew Research Center for the the People & the Press. In 2012, newspapers lost $16 in print ads for every $1 earned in digital ads. In 2011, the ratio was just 10-to-1. Most of us probably don’t need statistics to tell us that the newspaper business is in real trouble. Many newspapers have merged or been acquired. Those still publishing have, in most cases, either dramatically cut the number of pages or, in the case of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, have reduced the physical dimensions of the pages themselves.

A major reason for the decline in revenues has been online advertising’s impact on print media, perhaps especially Craigslist. For years, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has maintained that the ineptitude of the papers themselves, rather than his service, is the reason for the decline of newspapers. But a recent Forbes article, "Craigslist Took $5 Billion From Newspapers" points to a study by NYU Sloan School of Business professor Robert Seamans and Harvard Business School professor Feng Zhu, in which the authors estimate that Craigslist’s entry into the market led to $5 billion in savings to classified-ad buyers between 2000 and 2007. Of course, this also means that local newspapers lost out on billions in potential revenue.

The study’s researchers also identified several ripple effects produced by Craigslist across the newspaper industry. They calculated that newspapers that relied heavily on classified-ad revenue saw a:

  • 20.7 percent drop in classified-ad rates
  • 3.3 percent increase in subscription prices
  • 4.4 percent decrease in circulation
  • 16.5 percent increase in differentiation from other papers
  • 3.1 percent decrease in display-ad rates
  • Lower likelihood of providing content online

So what do we have here? We have an industry that has lost billions of dollars due to technological development and has been unable to "cash in" with its own online advertising; one that has lost papers and pages due to declining revenue and one that has lost readers due to technological and demographic changes).

It’s not a pretty picture, especially if you’re a newspaper "junkie" (as I am) or worse – a newspaper employee or journalism student.

The authors of the Craigslist study claim to see the newspaper industry as evolving, rather than dying.

"I wouldn’t say Craigslist is killing newspapers. We hear a lot about how the newspaper industry is dying or maybe a dinosaur. My coauthor and I definitely don’t think that’s the case," Seamans told Forbes.


Whatever the case, the industry changes have caused tension in the ranks, as New York Times media columnist David Carr points out in a column, "War on Leaks Is Pitting Journalist vs. Journalist." Carr quotes reputable print journalists who are striking out against WikiLeaks (who brokered the publishing of government documents by Bradley Manning) and Glenn Greenwald (the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations) in a way that neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post were attacked when they released the Pentagon Papers way back in 1971.

Overall, Carr says, "The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us." Then adds, "It is true that Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald are activists with the kind of clearly defined political agendas that would be frowned upon in a traditional newsroom. But they are acting in a more transparent age – they are their own newsrooms in a sense – and their political beliefs haven’t precluded other news organizations from following their leads."

I agree with Carr’s conclusions and think that they also may tie in with Seamans’ description of an evolving – not dying – industry. Newspaper journalists may have thought, in days past, that the fledgling radio, and later, television reporters, really weren’t journalists either. If the industry is, in fact, evolving into something new (a combination of print and digital), being competitive will require aspiring journalists (and those already there) to acquire new skills and understanding. (Read about TV’s history in From Howdy Doody to HD: A History of TV.)

This shift also places demands on the reader to critically analyze online sources. Most newspaper readers know enough to generally accept the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as "papers of record," while questioning the stories in supermarket tabloids much more critically. Do most know enough to properly weigh the veracity and objectivity of The Daily Kos, The Daily Beast, Salon, Slate, The Blaze, The Huffington Post, Raw Story and the thousands upon thousands of other Web-based news services? I doubt it. In other words, readers will have to evolve right along with the industry.

The news industry differs from others in that it is constitutionally protected under the Freedom of the Press provision of the First Amendment (once we can agree on who the press and journalists are in this new digital world). It is, however, similar to everything else around us in that all – businesses, the public, critics, students – really all – must do whatever necessary through constant questioning, re-education, imagination and discipline to remain competitive and responsible while everything constantly changes. When it comes to technology, that’s really the only choice we have.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…