Newsprint Blues: The Utility Paradox
September 23, 2009 in Future Of Journalism
(Note: This is part of an ongoing journal of Sproing’s experience as a mite on the sickly hide of that dying beast, Old Media.)
It’s nice to have water piped in from a reservoir that doesn’t have corpses floating in it; to have warmth generated by something other than peat I cut myself from the neighboring bog; to travel by a road free of ruts and rapine-minded highwaymen. Yes, very nice, these utilities that I only notice when my kitchen tap runs brown for half a day, or the power bill goes up, or I get stuck in traffic.
Also nice: getting the news of the day delivered straight to my eyeballs, by whatever conveyance. I need not gather in the square to have the baron’s approved dispatches bellowed at me; I can instead consume news wherever I like, with reasonable confidence that it hasn’t been red-pencilled by a self-interested governing authority.
We love those conveniences that come with living in an organized, cooperative society — and we can’t stand the systems that provide them.
They’re clueless, bloated, unresponsive, insulated. Cycles of anti-institutional sentiment are built into American history, and the incompetence of governmental systems plays to our tendency to willfully misunderstand the social contract. Newspapers weren’t invented as part of that contract, but they’ve grown up alongside it, and their ubiquity and usefulness — their utility — made them indispensable for two hundred years in winning the informed consent of the governed.
For argument’s sake, let’s lump together all the institutional services we count on — health support, law enforcement, water (and sometimes power), streets, schools — and add newspapers to their mix. All are established with the stated purpose of benefiting the public — providing a service through the channel of the community that the individual could not reasonably accomplish. In the case of newspapers, there’s a profit motive, because when people are reading your print product, their eyes will naturally ping across whatever advertising you manage to sell and display within. This is what newspapers do instead of levying a tax.
That model — news flash! — is shot to hell and bleeding out on the operating table. We all have to pay taxes, but nobody has to subscribe to a newspaper to get news anymore. When businesses start to contract, advertising is the first line item they scrub from their budgets. It’s also the last one they reinstate, and if I read the entrails right, many firms that find cheaper alternatives in broadcast media, direct marketing and online won’t ever go back to pre-crash levels of print advertising. Newspapers haven’t earned this little money since 1965, and they’re staring at Stone Age revenues in the long run. In the institutional metaphor, it’s as though neoconservatives finally achieved their longstanding dream of defunding the Department of Education.
Newspapers are akin to government in other ways. They are closed societies, staffed by people of a different educational level and (probably) political bias than most of their readers. Their reporters and editors are paid to do what seems like cushy labor to guys who lift engine blocks for a living. They’re guided by operational philosophies (objectivity, standards of content, service to an ill-defined commonweal) that they can’t adequately justify to civilians. Because of their essential apart-ness, and because they arrive every day as surely as current to your reading light, newspapers are easily grouped in with the public service sector. Because they tell you things you don’t want to hear, or speak in a manner you object to, or elide the facts you deem crucial, they can be dismissed and chastised as tools of the power elite. They are among those bureaucracies that are out to subtract authority from the everyman. Your newspaper is one of Them.
Newspapers got crushed at a curious nexus of history. They’re victims simultaneously of the economic contraction, the rise of webvertising (on which the publishing industry spectacularly failed to capitalize, despite numerous chances), and the anti-institutional conservatism fostered by Ronald Reagan. Undermined by dropping revenues underfoot and pummeled by consumer discontent from without, papers were too slow to find a new way to sell ads, and too punch-drunk and hidebound to make a case for why readers should stick with them.
More readers wouldn’t necessarily save newspapers. Actual sales of printed papers, which make up 20 to 30 percent of total revenues, were never their lifeblood anyway. They’re important mostly as a metric to prove newspapers’ value to potential advertisers: More eyes on the consumer end, more dollars to be had from the sales cycle. One reader canceling her subscription in protest of a grisly car-crash photo, hoping to harm the institutional structure, is akin to one crank digging his own well to get out from under the Stalinist thumb of City Water. But when all the readers go away, the newspaper’s value as an ad medium disappears, and it has no reason to exist.
Newspapers may survive this — a handful of them, serving dissipated markets, their print editions just adjuncts to their websites. But they will be skeletal compared to the thick porterhouse steaks of wood pulp that used to land on your doorstep, their influence negligible, their glamour sanded off. Note also how the potholes accumulate on your route to work, unpatched for budgetary considerations, or how your kid gets stuffed into bigger and bigger public school classes, because no one in your district wanted to pay for that last bond issue.
Utilities are only useful to the extent that we honor our commitment to living in a communal society. When we say, “I’ve never been on food stamps, so why should I pay for them?,” we are saying that we want to live alone. When we say, “This newspaper gives me news I dislike, therefore it’s worthless,” we are making it so.