Media's Fatal Flaw: Ignoring the Mistakes of Newspapers

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Last week, layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett landed like consecutive punches. The news signaled a difficult year ahead for an industry already mired in perpetual uncertainty.

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Jeremy Littau is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Lehigh University who studies networked information environments and its effect on society.

For some, the squeezing and shrinking of media companies might feel like more of the same, but not all layoffs are created equal. The downfall of Gannett—an exemplar of failed newspaper strategies—is instructive in navigating the future of digital media. Decades of monopolist thinking meant news organizations turned a blind eye to their audiences' needs.

Newspapers, the story goes, made its first tragic mistake when the internet became publicly available by giving away its content for free. That fatal choice gave the public a sense that news had no value and disincentivized people from paying for content in the long run. But this commonly told cautionary tale oversimplifies the issue.

The problem with that view is it is ahistorical. Readership for newspapers has been declining since the early 1970s. By the 1980s, GenXers growing up in newspaper-reading households were increasingly shunning the format, year over year. For a smart newspaper company, the internet presented an opportunity to capture young readers who hadn’t formed the newspaper habits of their parents.

That opportunity was wasted. Most newspaper chains were publicly traded companies that had conditioned investors to expect high profit margins, often in excess of 30 percent. A company that wanted to prepare itself for a digital future would have been spending those profits on R&D. But because readership was dropping—even while newspapers were wildly profitable—companies met investor expectations by making subtle cuts to newsrooms, freezing positions and leaving openings unfilled.

Media's real tragic mistake was that by the time the internet came around, it was treated as a place to dump content, a “shovelware” strategy. Treating the internet like a newspaper represented a serious misjudgment of the platform. The internet wasn’t just paper—it was also the paperboy. It was a content, platform, and distribution model all in one.

Newspapers were slow to realize that they had been operating in a pseudo-monopoly for years, one neatly defined by the limits of geography and technology. They fundamentally misunderstood the distribution role of the internet.

Yes, communities need local stories to feel connected to the people they live near. But they also bought the paper because they needed crossword puzzles, TV guides, weather reports, comic strips, classified ads, help wanted postings, and advertisements for products and sales.

The accidental brilliance of the newspaper business model is it commoditized all those information needs to an audience that, pre-internet, had no other choice. You want a weather report? The newspaper had it. Looking for a job? The newspaper had it. Newspapers owned their readership, which had many needs but few choices. Advertisers showed up in droves to capitalize on this holy grail—a captive audience that can be reliably delivered in a defined space.

The internet changed everything. The weather became a website, then an app. TV guides went online and became interactive and customizable. Classifieds became searchable and interconnected across regions, then states, and eventually the nation.

Suddenly, all the things people had once depended on newspapers for were online and free. When you give people new choices, they ask hard questions about the value of the old product. The depressing answer: traditional newspapers weren’t worth much to a community whose news needs were increasingly regional and national, but whose local information needs were now free.

This exposed some of the fissures that newspapers had with their audience, ones that were entirely knowable, yet hidden by monopoly thinking. The most obvious example is political differences, the perception that conservatives distrust a media they see as too liberal. But there were other rifts. People of color and women have long complained about how they were portrayed in news, a sentiment backed by decades of academic research. The internet gave these already dissatisfied audience segments new choices—and reason to leave newspapers behind.

This history is important because it represents a way to forward as we remake the news for a constantly changing landscape. I am bullish on the future of news because society still has information needs. That isn’t going to change, even as the way we get our news continues to evolve.

Journalism has been slow to realize its competitive advantage was always in being embedded in communities and serving the public interest. Technology made newspapers' dominance possible in a pre-internet world, and a lack of understanding about the threat—and opportunity—of new technologies has been their downfall.

Remaking news systems, particularly for local news, starts with listening. Some of the most promising news innovations of the past decade, such as the Texas Tribune in Austin, Texas, have built their entire strategy around audience engagement and community needs. Joy Mayer’s Trusting News project, which helps newsrooms strategize how to engage readers in meaningful ways, is another example. Despite last week's layoffs, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are both doing innovative experiments in audience engagement and research (HuffPost with social media spaces, BuzzFeed with data) that are likely driving some of the resource decisions at these companies.

Each new round of layoffs and shuttered newspapers offers the industry a chance to remake something better. An audience neglected by newspapers becomes an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone else. But we ought to learn from newspapers' mistakes. Rebuilding local media starts with figuring out what people truly want and need from their news, now that the excess has been stripped away.

WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com

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