Bad News

For all of us

It’s no secret that newspapers, in particular, and news gathering and disseminating organizations, in general, have been massively disrupted by the digital economy.

This has happened so quickly that the very survival of “journalism,” as those of us over the age of 35 understand it, is in real doubt.

The advertising revenue of all America’s newspapers fell from $63.5 billion in 2000 to about $23 billion in 2013, and is still falling.”

GoogleAdRevenue 650w1

That graph gives an immediate understanding of the changing economics of gathering and delivering the news.

Why does this matter?

American democracy, and perhaps all democracies, depend upon a vibrant, independent journalism and a well informed electorate.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, said,”The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.

I have always understood the fundamental issue confronting newspapers. It seems ridiculous to pay for yesterday’s news delivered in written form to our front door step today.

We can set up alerts on our phones and be instantly informed of breaking news anywhere in the world. But do we? Or do we chase “trending” stories which can be hyped and tend to be celebrity-driven, like the blue and black dress that half of us see as white and gold. Buzzfeed, the viral content king, got over 73 million hits on that.


In any case, putting the news online does not solve the economic problem printed news faces because the NY Times cannot charge the same amount for online ads that it once commanded for printed ads in the paper. Google — accountability — has changed this forever.

The situation seems more dire when we see that time spent on newspapers and magazines is shrinking each year. It’s down to about 5% of the time we devote to total media exposure. And “…there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided, which included national, foreign and local news, business news, cultural news and criticism, editorials and opinion columns, sports and obituaries, lifestyle features and science news.”

Those under the age of 35 seem least interested in this broadly focused, global, topical knowledge and the most susceptible to algorithm-based story selection. We have become spectacularly under- and misinformed. In a recent Pew Research Center national study, 23% of Americans surveyed had never heard of Benjamin Netanyahu.

For those who continue to want access to that kind of product, there is no right to reliable, intelligent, comprehensive journalism. We only get it when someone provides it. And if it doesn’t pay someone a profit, it’s not likely to be produced.”

Years ago, I had a conversation with a news director at one of my radio stations. He was advocating for a series of stories about arcane budget issues faced by a local school board. He said something like, “We have a responsibility to inform people of things they don’t care about until they know enough to care about them.

All I had to do was repeat his own words aloud, slowly, for him to see my point: If listeners don’t care about an issue, the only thing that will happen as we hammer them over the head with it is tune-out.

Yet now, I find myself more aligned with him than I would’ve thought possible.

At one time, the Big 3 networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — and the most widely read newspapers, tended to bring us, the American populace, closer together. They tended to build consensus.

Now, each of us tends to view only those news channels that reinforce what we already believe to be true, if we care about “news” at all. And, by its very nature, television news and the most popular online news sites do not (they would say “cannot”) go into the depth that most major issues require to be understood. Everything is dumbed down to tweet size.

The fragmentation of media today is a fracturing and polarizing force, making governance and consensus very much more difficult. We see it every day in the dysfunction of our government.

This is a complex problem, one that can’t be solved in one blog post. You can read the article that inspired my thinking HERE and an excellent interview about how and why this has happened, and the ramifications which have already appeared, HERE. And I will leave you with this:

By undermining the economic basic of professional reporting and by fragmenting the public, the digial revolution has weakened the ability of the press to act as an effective agent of public accountability. If we take seriously the idea that an independent press serves an essential democratic function, its institutional distress may weaken democracy itself. And that is the danger that confronts us.”

Our big thinkers need to be thinking about this. You and I do too.