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January 24, 2019 9:34 PM   Subscribe

 
No news is good news?
posted by Grandysaur at 9:38 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


The only thing surprising about any of this is AOL. I honestly thought they’d gone under/been bought out long ago.

But all the rest, yeah. This means more mass-produced clickbait and less real journalism, I’m afraid.
posted by darkstar at 9:39 PM on January 24 [7 favorites]


The forward is also having layoffs
posted by cricketcello at 9:41 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Why pay for the cow when the milk is free?
posted by valkane at 9:51 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Answer: Because you don't know what's in free milk.
posted by valkane at 9:53 PM on January 24 [76 favorites]


Because the free milk isn't free; you pay for it one way or the other, often a lot more than you'd think.
posted by Peach at 9:54 PM on January 24 [8 favorites]


Jeremy Littau: For those who aren’t quite sure why these media layoffs keep happening, or think “it’s the internet!” or “people don’t pay to subscribe,” there’s a lot more going on. Though that is part of that. Here’s a cliffs notes version - not exhaustive but it hits the highlights

This highlights the devastation in local news, especially in small-medium markets, hedge funds stripping papers for parts, and the demographic time bomb just waiting to go off, with some hope for the future in small local independents doing accountability journalism.
posted by zachlipton at 10:05 PM on January 24 [47 favorites]


It seems to me, a person that used to work for a newspaper, and left that industry because it was a failing piece of shit (that I loved and wanted to be a part of, because I believed in it, but guess what?), that the fourth estate has become nothing more than a propaganda piece of the capitalist landscape. so that's who they serve. so who can you trust? no one in the media.

so trump is right in saying it's fake news. because they sure as shit don't report on his crimes. not enough. like we all know here in the megaposts, the media is complicit. even the New York Times sucks now. they are a reality show.

how do you fix it? how do you make rich people answer to their crimes? that was supposed to be the press doing their job. but the rich people bought all the press, and now, here we are.
posted by valkane at 10:26 PM on January 24 [63 favorites]


If I were a multibillionare, I think I'd set up some kind of foundation to help struggling local papers convert to nonprofits.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:29 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


"Mic, another site aimed at millennials, laid off its entired [sic, the most ironic one of the day] editorial staff in November. "

Is that basically equivalent to closing up shop, or is the some hope that whoever bought them will bring in new staff?
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:57 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I'll admit something here. I don't pay to subscribe to my local paper. I should, I'd like to, and I often think about signing up, and then I don't.

It's not that I don't pay for news. I pay for a Washington Post digital subscription (I have access to the NYT with a family member's bonus subscription), I pay for Talking Points Memo, I'm trying out this new experimental service where I pay a buck a week for a local journalist who sends gossipy city hall insider-type stuff text message, and I make some modest annual contributions to ProPublica and a nearby local neighborhood non-profit newsroom. It's not a ton, but it's something.

My local paper though, has this totally scammy subscription page. For a digital subscription, which is all I'd want, it's $180/year once you're past the first month offer. That's the same as the New York Times. And it's advertised as "for the first year," so I have no idea what happens after that. They have digital+print options that are so scammy looking they don't even tell you how much it costs after the promotional period. For a while, they were running a deal alongside that for $99/year for digital+Sunday print, and while I understand why they want me to get the Sunday print paper from an advertising perspective, telling me that I have to pay $80/year more for the privilege of not receiving an unwanted newspaper is a good way to make me close the tab in frustration.

There's a discussion to be had as to whether $180/year is a fair price for a digital subscription local newspaper that will inevitably be supplementary to another national news source (Hearst long ago shuttered the national and international bureaus that allowed the paper to function as anything resembling a standalone source, and some of their best journalists who do break national news quickly find themselves at other outlets). But my biggest problem is that there's another side effect of the "demographic time bomb" problem Littau mentions: the paper is inevitably geared around the print readers who produce its revenue, readers Littau undiplomatically calls: "Old people (by and large)." And while my local paper has actually gotten a lot better in recent years—they've and done some extraordinary work around the region's fires and finally just convinced the food critic to retire so they could hire the awesome Soleil Ho—, it's still hardly the voice of the millennial generation. They cover a city where substantial numbers of people use mass transit, but sat out covering the meltdown of the city's bus service for months while two reporters named Joe from the city's free daily and a local blog ran circles around them.

I don't begrudge my local paper for catering to their paying audience, but if local news is going to continue to exist, let alone ask for $180/year for a digital subscription, it's got to offer more than political columns from the ex-Mayor who has been out of office for 15 years. I'll get over myself and subscribe at some point, because on net balance it's a thing I want to continue to exist, but begrudging submission is not a business model, and I fear it's just putting off the inevitability where the nonprofit model is all that's left.
posted by zachlipton at 11:07 PM on January 24 [30 favorites]


The only thing surprising about any of this is AOL. I honestly thought they’d gone under/been bought out long ago.

My brother still uses his AOL email address, so there is at least one email server running somewhere.
posted by pracowity at 11:41 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Also of note, TFA is not available in Europe, because the hosting media org was unwilling or unable to dig deeply enough into its festering stack of adware to even attempt to determine how to make it compliant with GDPR, which despite all the grouching about it in certain tech circles, is a surprisingly competent attempt to render into regulation the relatively simple directive “don’t spy on your users without at least asking them first”.

It’s unfortunate that, in most cases, we rely on capitalists to fund information services, because groupthink in the media (not just in America) doesn’t even examine the received wisdom that you need megabytes of the most invasive possible sort of straight-up malware on your page to make money. TFA, if I could read it, demonstrates this is not the case.

I don’t have a solution. Part of the compulsory licensing fee (1 Fr. a day, about a buck) I pay because I own a radio and a smartphone goes to support SRF, which runs a couple of news websites as asides to their television news business (including swissinfo.ch, which is a pretty good source for news about Switzerland if you don‘t speaking Swiss German). There is a spunky startup in town founded as a non-profit membership club for investigative journalism: you join, you get access. I’m not sure I get Fr.20/mo worth of news and entertainment out of them, but I’m a member anyway because i believe in what i’m trying to do.

Relying on a state broadcaster in a post-Fairness-Doctrine America for information is a bad idea - we have running code on this in the form of Fox News. And trying to run a functional democracy on the Republik model — where only people with a few hundred bucks a year to spend get access to non-junk news — is also not a thing that works anywhere other than tiny rich countries.
posted by Vetinari at 11:43 PM on January 24 [13 favorites]


It's the 21st century. Where are the micropayments? I know, I know, it's a hard thing to bootstrap, but the biggest turnoff to a subscription is that I'm unlikely to commit to a monthly or yearly lump sum as an impulse buy. But for all those popup "you need to subscribe to read" interstitials that are popular these days, I'd usually be fine with dropping $1 to read the article.

also I was told there would be hoverboards
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:45 PM on January 24 [12 favorites]


I follow/am pretend internet friends with a few freelance writers on twitter like Noah Berlatsky and they're quietly panicking about this trend as it's getting harder and harder to find outlets for their articles. Everybody is going Patreon and trying to see if that can make them a living but it's hard to see how that will help everybody.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:55 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]


The Littau link above is good. Newspapers losing their local advertising monopoly to Google and Facebook lost them the revenue stream that subsidized the reporting. Josh Marshall at TPM has been especially down on Facebook as a bad actor but income was going to go down no matter how virtuous the new companies were.

I'd probably emphasize how bad shrinking revenues are for businesses, because that's something it took me a long time to get. If you have operating profits everything should be fine and you can stay in business indefinitely, right? But only by cutting down on what you do. It's like the reverse of a promising startup.
posted by mark k at 11:55 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]


Old person here ! I remember when a really good newspaper used to cost one thin dime on a week day and two bits on a Sunday. We got two newspapers a day in San Francisco, inLA and in Albuquerque and Seattle. Not only that. Foreign papers, from France, Ireland, the UK and Mexico. Even specialized newspapers related to bullfighting and others related to cinema. We had literal stacks of them.
As a family our income was modest. Now for the same level of subscriptions, it’s like 4 - 5 times as much. You pick and choose and frankly few if any of the newspapers and magazines are as good as they used to be.
$180 a year is a lot to pay for a local newspaper of dubious quality. It would be a lot to pay for the best damn newspaper of all time! I think it would be a good option if one could have a subscription app that would allow for multiple, reliable news sources and not have them be click - bait. You’d be totally subscribed to between 4 - 10 papers digitally for one year. I think then you could get a local paper, a paper with national standing and possibly something special interest. This would all be digital.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:03 AM on January 25 [14 favorites]


Newspapers losing their local advertising monopoly to Google and Facebook lost them the revenue stream that subsidized the reporting.

I was under the impression that craigslist had a much bigger impact--essentially destroying papers' classified ad revenue.
posted by MikeKD at 1:29 AM on January 25 [10 favorites]


What I want this to mean: ownership has conceded that clickbait and listicles are not the way forward
What this probably means: a continued decline in funding for actual journalism and editorial reporting, especially viewpoints critical of corporations and political cronyism
posted by a halcyon day at 1:46 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


The problem, as evidenced by some people in this thread is that people are anchored to what news papers cost to buy when their Monopoly on local advertising created a massive subsidy. Now being closer to being faced with the real cost of journalism people don't want to pay.

People who want "actual journalism and editorial reporting, especially viewpoints critical of corporations and political cronyism" need to understand what that actually costs to do and be willing to write a check for that.
posted by JPD at 2:39 AM on January 25 [13 favorites]


Also of note, TFA is not available in Europe, because the hosting media org was unwilling or unable to dig deeply enough into its festering stack of adware to even attempt to determine how to make it compliant with GDPR

Vetinari, I'm curious as to whether that also applies to the article's original WaPo appearance.
posted by mediareport at 2:43 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I was under the impression that craigslist had a much bigger impact--essentially destroying papers' classified ad revenue.

MikeKD, the sharp Jeremy Littau thread linked above discusses this briefly:

And then came free classified ads on Craigislist (among others). People have said Craig Newmark killed newspapers, but that is nonsense. I’m surprised it took people that long to invent free classifieds, tbh. SOMEBODY was going to do it. At least Newmark cares about news...

Classified ads were a damn boondoggle. $500 in a mid-metro to place a car ad. The more expensive your item, the more you got charged. No wonder people rebelled the minute they were offered the ability to do it for free. Newmark didn’t kill classifieds; news publisher greed did.

posted by mediareport at 2:59 AM on January 25 [6 favorites]


Does journalism have a future?

Sadly, this seems to conform to Betteridge's law of headlines.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:00 AM on January 25


Google and FB's parasitically absorbing the lion's share of online ad buying has to be the elephant in the room here, surely?
posted by ryanshepard at 4:30 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]


Frankly, at my income level, it’s not whether I want to pay, but can I pay? The answer is I can’t pay.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:38 AM on January 25 [18 favorites]


why buy the cow

I haven’t paid for all my metaphorical cows, but I went on a cow renting spree in November 2016 and I’m still renting those. And you know, part of the reason was needing to feel like I was in community with other people and doing something to help keep the world afloat. Reading free news doesn’t give me that feeling in the same way. It sounds so silly and squishy, and it probably doesn’t scale, but perhaps that’s what the Patreon trend is trying to do too. I contribute to a handful of Patreons/other similar microfunding for freelancers for similar reasons.
posted by eirias at 5:01 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I subscribe to the Digital edition of my local paper, and I even flip through it a few days a week. Printing out the daily sudoku is probably the best thing I get out of it. Probably not worth $10 a month, but I want to believe I'm helping pay somebody to keep an eye on the Virginia government.
posted by COD at 5:09 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I'm curious as to whether that also applies to the article's original WaPo appearance

Nope, WaPo and the NYT are GDPR compliant. Thanks for the link :)

(There also seem to be a few companies selling GDPR opt-in/out software to American media, because I've seen a few variations on a theme across multiple outlets. They're a masterclass in antipatterns.)
posted by Vetinari at 5:39 AM on January 25


I live in Canada, and the three big newspapers up here are all skewed politically in such a way that I find it really hard to justify paying a subscription fee to any of them. There's a lot of garbage hot takes on certain political and social issues that make me feel bad just giving them clicks, let alone money. I cancelled my international subscription to the New York Times because they were sympathizing too much with Trump supporters and white nationalists (so much both-sides-ism), fuck that.

The local newspaper in my town is kind of garbage and this is a result of a 2017 purchase by PostMedia which shut down so many smaller run community papers, everything is watered down and recycled and ad/click-bait driven now.

I want to support journalists and journalism but it's getting harder and harder to do that. I've considered a subscription to the Washington Post but it's not cheap. Sighs.
posted by Fizz at 5:43 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


I'll admit something here. I don't pay to subscribe to my local paper. I should, I'd like to, and I often think about signing up, and then I don't.

I subscribed to the Chicago Tribune for a couple of years when I moved here but eventually cancelled when it became too overt that the editorial board absolutely hated the people who actually lived in Chicago.

I still think the reason that newspapers are failing is that they handed over control of their revenue engine to advertising networks that can lowball what they earn at the same time as savagely undermining the newspaper's credibility with all those stupid outbound links to hoaxes and snakeoil.

I felt uncomfortable when I had a blog and ran google ads because I realized I was completely trusting google to be honest about what my ads were earning when all Google's incentives pointed in the other direction. They controlled everything about the ads. I had to trust their click data, their rate data, and that Google wasn't taking too big of a middle man slice. It was inconsequential money in my case because it wasn't how I earned my living but with newspapers? It was their bread and butter and it was completely controlled by someone else. Newspapers essentially gave away the keys to their vaults.
posted by srboisvert at 6:11 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


For those looking for a more affordable subscription to the Washington Post, if you already have Amazon Prime, it's free for 6 months then $3.99/month thereafter. I'm not sure I like what that says about the Amazon-WaPo relationship but...it's a good deal?
posted by mosst at 6:13 AM on January 25 [8 favorites]


Oh, nevermind - I'm still paying the prime rate but it appears that promotion may have ended for new subscribers. Sorry about that!
posted by mosst at 6:15 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Feeling guilty about not paying for news online, I have been looking at subscribing to some sources, but the Boston Globe and the New York Times both want upward of $300/year. Maybe that's a fair price if you read every single article every single day, but seems prohibitively expensive otherwise. I was able to take advantage of that Amazon Prime/WashPost promotion but I feel like somewhere between $4-10 a month is about what I would be willing to pay for any newspaper. Even in Ye Olden Days of printed newspapers, I never bought any paper every day of the week, so I've never paid that kind of money for them. Having said that, I would gladly pay them $1 for a single issue price, just like buying a paper from a news stand.
posted by briank at 6:27 AM on January 25


I pay for a subscription to my local paper even though the editorial page is basically Fox News talking points because they're still doing good local reporting. I also have a Washington Post subscription despite my dislike of Bezos. I should donate to PublicSource, a non-profit news agency here in Pittsburgh that's doing really good work.
posted by octothorpe at 7:05 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I stopped reading and watching the local news in mid-'90s New Jersey because it was all babies in dumpsters and Trump.

I stopped reading and watching the national news after 9/11 demonstrated that the "news" was nothing more than a propaganda machine.

I began disengaging from social media as news-propaganda metastasized within it during the 2016 election.

Last year, I watched 9/11-esque thick black smoke belch out from the middle of the Tribunal de Paris for several hours. No mention of the event in French, US, or International media that I could find.

I feel sorry for anyone who thought journalism was a viable career path to educate the populace, rather than the entertainment and propaganda machine it actually is.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:18 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


If I were a multibillionare, I think I'd set up some kind of foundation to help struggling local papers convert to nonprofits.

i personally would fund the research and development of a private army of invincible beepeople loyal only to me but i would do your idea right after
posted by poffin boffin at 7:25 AM on January 25 [14 favorites]


I was about to chime in to octothorpe's post that I, too, pay for my local paper even though the editorial page is garbage, and then I realized it's octothorpe, so it's the same local paper. Yup. That page sure is garbage. So I also support Pittsburgh Current and The Incline. But I'll keep my digital subscription to the actual physical paper too to support the non-editorial journalism. Plus the Post. I have dreams of returning to subscribing to the Times again one day if they ever get over their penchant for puff pieces about Nazis.

I have the budget room to afford this without being a hardship, though. I can absolutely understand why people on tighter budgets aren't going to consider their subscription to the garbage editorial page of the local paper to be something worth prioritizing over a medical copay or whatever else they could be doing with that money.
posted by Stacey at 7:42 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


how do you fix it? how do you make rich people answer to their crimes? that was supposed to be the press doing their job. but the rich people bought all the press, and now, here we are.

DING!

Don't blame the Internet. This started with Ronald Reagan, Mark Fowler and the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine.
posted by terrapin at 8:42 AM on January 25 [14 favorites]


No surprise, but just for the record, this also is hitting traditional newspapers at the same time. Gannett laid off a slew of people at papers across the country, quite possibly because a hedge fund's front is making a bid for the company. And the Dallas Morning News, a pretty solid paper both financially and in its reporting, laid off 20 in its newsroom among the 43 company-wide.
posted by martin q blank at 9:07 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I've been spending time on Twitter recently and I remember seeing some threads from journalists talking about how Facebook has done sketchy stuff related to ad revenue profits regarding its video content, so these layoffs are a combination of media firms wanting to go more into video rather than investing in print, but also Facebook and Google destroying the ad ecosystem. This is a mess. Too bad I can't locate them and Google keeps showing up PR articles praising Facebook for it and showing that people have "optimistic projections" about it bouncing back. Ugh.

Oh found one link after going back on Twitter : 2017 state of buzzfeed report
posted by yueliang at 9:24 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


$180 definitely sounds like too much but on the other hand it comes out to 50 cents a day, which some might consider a reasonable price for a decent daily local paper. If they broke it down to a $15/month recurring sub it would probably be more palatable psychologically.
posted by xigxag at 9:56 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]


My goal this year is to start paying for the outlets I enjoy and respect. I just started funding the LA-specific The LAnd Magazine which is a phoenix born from the ashes of fired LA Weekly staffers after it got cannibalized by a right-libertarian weed businessman and other investors from Orange County. Also Popula which has a funding kickstarter right now and has been turning out excellent content.

Other good outlets:

The Outline
The Baffler
Splinter News

Anyone else got other recommendations?
posted by JauntyFedora at 9:59 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


it'd cost a fair amount, five billion invested at two percent average return only gives you an annual budget of around a hundred million dollars, but it seems to me that any well intentioned billionaire would do well to set up a massive fund to feed a genuine news agency with investigative reporters, real news reported fairly and accurately with none of the kowtowing to power we see in so many outlets, all for free and with a guarantee that they'd never be compromised by taking ad money.

And a hundred million isn't really huge for a news agency, but it'd be a start. And maybe convince some other billionaires to chip in a few billion of their own to the fund to keep the world's only independent news service going and growing.

Yeesh, the situation has to be terrible to get me hoping for a benevolent billionaire to solve it.

And meanwhile, the ever dwindling newspapers continue to spew out clickbait BS and horrible fake "news" ads at the bottom of every real news page. Gee, drivers in [insert my city here] outraged at a new law? Wow, that's almost as amazing as all those hot singles in [insert city here] who want to meet me!
posted by sotonohito at 10:21 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


My plan for 2019 is to get my news budget a bit more under control. I've done some napkin math for what a daily-and-Sundays subscription would have cost in the 1980s, adjusted for inflation, and bumped it up to account for the advertising that's no longer there. I figure if I split that value among all the disparate local news sources I rely on for information about the world around me, I've made a reasonable contribution to keeping local journalism alive.

Except that the Denver news scene is even more volatile than other large cities', and there'll probably be another paper to kickstart or something before long. (Previously on the more-than-decimation of the Denver Post by the hedge fund that's now trying to buy Gannett.)

My parents, both retired career journalists from a poor state, think I'm overthinking it. I don't like the idea that journalists today might not be able to provide for themselves and their families the way my parents did for me. It feels weird to say that this is my way of expressing gratitude for never having gone hungry as a child, but that's how it feels to me.
posted by asperity at 10:23 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


My Twitter feed this morning is just one BuzzFeed journalist getting laid off after another, including the excellent Blake Montgomery who just in November tweeted "I got arrested and sent to jail for this story, so fucking read it." It's devastating.
posted by zachlipton at 10:26 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


So why do newspapers have such scammy subscription pages?

If I go to the New York Times page to subscribe (and I get radically different pricing depending on when I try this), I can have a "basic subscription" for $3.75 $1.00 a week "for one year." Or an all access subscription for $6.25 $3.13. All access+print is helpfully described "as low as" $9.00 $4.50 (which, after clicking through several screens, I learn that the lowest price is actually more than $5.00/week and the price will double after the fourth week). What's with the strikethroughs and when does the price 3.75x on me from $52/year to $195/year? The Boston Globe is all "Pay just 99¢/week for the first 4 weeks," with tiny fine print at the bottom of the screen revealing that after the 4 weeks are up, they'll automatically start charging me a whopping "$27.72 (99¢/day)" every 4 weeks.

Compare this to Netflix or Hulu or YouTube TV, services that millennials actually do pay for. They all just straight-up tell you the price and make their promotional offers transparent.

I don't know if I'm unique in this regard, but when I see weird strikethroughs, fine print where the price increases seven times over, and vague promo prices where the actual price isn't mentioned, I just close the tab pretty much immediately. If you're asking to charge my credit card every month, I'm looking for a straightforward answer to how much it's going to cost. It seems like every newspaper pulls this nonsense, and maybe it works on what they consider their target audience, but it's devastating to any notion that these are supposed to be trustworthy institutions.

And fundamentally, the paywall/subscription model just doesn't seem to work for local news. The subscription-pocalypse is about to hit.
posted by zachlipton at 10:56 AM on January 25 [12 favorites]


I feel like the problem with a lot of the major newspapers/sites is that they're owned by parent corporations and have to pay the salaries of billionaires and millionaires who will still end up laying off reporters before they start to touch their own bottom line. There's also more potential for conflict of interest. I still see medium-to-large size news orgs doing necessary work but I don't know how to solve that fundamental problem aside from focusing on supporting smaller outlets first.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:02 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Yup, mark my local paper, the San Antonio Express-News, as also having a scammy subscription page. I can get it for $.99 for four weeks. Poking at the site has not yet revealed what the actual subscription price will be when we get to the second month and the first real billing period. Apparently you have to subscribe and wait four weeks to find out.

I fired off a politely worded query to their contact us page asking both what the real subscription price is, and why they are keeping it secret on the subscription page.
posted by sotonohito at 11:03 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Google and FB's parasitically absorbing the lion's share of online ad buying has to be the elephant in the room here, surely?

Yes, but like with Craig Newmark / Craigslist, if it wasn't them it would have been somebody else.

Blaming Google and Facebook is sort of like blaming Amazon for the death of Sears. It's sort of true, and it's satisfying to have a Bad Guy to point to with our pitchforks, but in a parallel universe where it never existed, Sears would likely be just as dead, and instead of Amazon we'd have... something else. BiffMart, or whatever. Because the problem wasn't so much Amazon coming in, as it was Sears failing to adapt to changing conditions that made its old business model non-viable.

Similarly, the problem isn't that Google / FB emerged to dominate online advertising (well, their duopoly is a problem, but a different one), but that they had the opportunity to do so. The moment the newspapers created an opportunity, by failing to capture it themselves, somebody was going to take it. And they created a huge opportunity, because their margins on advertising were so high. Nobody liked paying newspapers' rates for ads, from individuals putting up classifieds to agencies doing national full-page spreads. But when they were the only way to reach that many people, you paid what they charged.

The Littau thread gets to the crux of the issue; newspaper companies got used to truly ridiculous profit margins (which went, for the most part, to shareholders, with floor-sweepings to journalists), and built their businesses around the expectation of these high profits. They saw no reason to change, and really couldn't change—because that would have harmed their profitability—when they were in a position to jump in with both feet and dominate the Web early on.

I remember the regional paper where I grew up had a pretty popular dial-up BBS; they were also one of the first local organizations other than universities to have a Web site. So it's not like nobody in that business was paying attention. I'm sure people who worked in the industry saw it coming, but weren't in a position to do anything about it.

I mean, you can war-game out what it would have taken for a national newspaper to stay on top of the advertising business when it moved to the web from print. They'd have had to drop advertising rates to a fraction of what they were used to, and take all the pain of the last two decades in one big lump. It would have taken a pretty ballsy CEO, and probably looked absolutely suicidal from the outside; there's no way a public company's owners would have allowed it.

This is one of the reasons I have a sort of general theory about the lifecycle of public companies in rapidly changing markets; incumbents operate at a significant disadvantage to new entrants, contrary to what you would expect. The new entrants don't have investors breathing down their executives' necks, expecting consistent dividends like they've always gotten. They're prepared to take some lumps. It's easier for a small, new company to grow into a market than it is for a large incumbent to shrink and transform itself into a new niche.

I don't have a great solution or anything, but we need to stop expecting industries to cross-subsidize public goods. The only safe model is something like the BBC, I think. But for decades, that was prohibited in the US, although that has recently changed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:11 PM on January 25 [10 favorites]


Seconding that seeing people I read on twitter to try and catch up on links to news now filling their feeds with friends' and colleagues' mini-CVs is really hammering home this round of layoffs to me.

I can't remember where I saw this but it doesn't seem to be the Littau thread so I will add it to the cause discussion: One other thing that the internet broke is the monopoly newspapers had on editorial decisions and aggregation. Whether you got the Times or the local paper part of what you (and advertisers) were paying for was "this pile of stories is the most important." It turns out that is really valuable but also really easy to uncouple from the actual production of news stories. So the profit for that part of the operation goes mostly to Google or Facebook and take away another slice of the pie. (Or in my case TMP or Vox, who at least pay writers but even so aren't subsidizing a lot of the local shoe leather work that used to be done.)

Don't blame the Internet. This started with Ronald Reagan, Mark Fowler and the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine.

I'm kind of sympathetic to the instinct here but I don't think that holds up. Newspapers were never covered by the Fairness Doctrine nor was cable and it's totally impossible to see how it could ever apply to the internet distributors.

FWIW I'm of the opinion what I (we?) think of as "normal" journalistic practice was just a thirty year period, a relative blip in our history, when the post-WWII consensus on norm intersected with reporters trying to become a profession ("journalists") changing newspaper standards, and the new three big broadcasters reinforcing these norms. We're now back to the real normal--close to the point (in metaphorical terms) when lots of little highly partisan papers would publish the established line, slightly counterweighted by driven muckraking types.
posted by mark k at 12:42 PM on January 25 [8 favorites]


I didn't work in hard news but I had a front-row seat for the decline and fall of my particular corner of media empire and I think it kind of comes down to a few things:

1. Media companies were slow to understand the difference between what they thought people wanted and what people actually do behaviourally. I used to tell my poor print writers who were just coming into the world of web traffic reports (including Chartbeat, later on, man, I had flashbacks reading about that) and comments, get your support network in place. This is because editors and writers really, really thought that the amazing, high-value story on Child Poverty on page 18 was nailing it for readers...which it kind of was once you put the magazine in their hands...but they were really buying the magazine for the Chicken Pot Pie recipe.

I mean, people sort of knew this but they did not really get that once the Internet had Every Chicken Pot Pie Recipe Ever (now shitty book length blog posts with a recipe at the end), no one would click on the child poverty piece. Ever. Even if subscribed to the newsletter.

So they didn't build sites that people wanted to actually read, for quite a long time. Or ignored the data. Or cried about the data and started to doubt their choices. Or just put subheads and bullet points and the odd chart into every print piece and shrug.

2. Also... the traditional rules of advertising where there was a rule that the Campbell's Chicken Stock ad had to be two pages away from the Chicken Pot Pie recipe, but Campbell's needed those eyeballs in a produced and measured (audited) format, were hard to break away from. I mean I genuinely remember vitriolic arguments about whether you could embed a mascara ad on a page talking about mascara while Google and Facebook were building platforms that would deliver that to the nth degree. Like, there was a tradition of opposition to the very idea.

Yes, media was way too used to easy advertising dollars, but one reason they didn't pivot fast was because there were some rules in place. The rules were getting pushed around for sure but I was really in those meetings.

3. Media people were really slow to understand tech product development and support in many organizations.

I got a $400,000+ website, debt which my brand carried into shutdown after the 2008 crash, which did not display slideshows nicely, (at the height of pageviews as a metric) because there was an early miscommunication about the difference between a "picture gallery" and a "slideshow" in a requirements document no editor ever saw. I mean this is just one example of thousands of how not understanding things (HTML/Databases/Mobile/Social/etc.) created bad debt.

One time I was lead editor on another site, if you are Canadian you would recognize it, millions of pageviews a month, which ran a malware ad accidentally and was banned by Google and it took me 44 hours to get my company to prioritize getting the damn malware down.

4. Once people learned a LITTLE bit about the web then it got really crazy.

I had a print team + some online team, and the word came down that we were all now one team, which was right thinking...but at the same time word came down that every editor had to do their current job + produce (I am not kidding) four blog posts a day, with free pictures, topics to be dictated by a morning scrum looking at yes, Chartbeat and everything else. (We never met that goal, FYI.) That produced a vast quantity of garbage, frankly. And once you're just producing garbage because suddenly people are freaking out, then you aren't whatever made you good in the first place.

5. I dunno what happened next 'cause I was mercifully included in a wave of layoffs.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:16 PM on January 25 [8 favorites]


Alex Pareene, The digital winter turns apocalyptic
The investors who pumped money into the new media companies now realize, as a few others quietly did back when they were investing that money, that with herculean effort and a few undisturbed years to find an audience, you can build, at most, a modestly sized and modestly profitable advertising-supported media company with no clear path to further growth, in a chronically uncertain industry. News for a time was a respectable, and respected, bit of polish, subsidized by everything else. Now that price is too high.
Investors thought they were buying into high-growth tech companies, when they were really buying into low-growth media companies. And when the hockeystick graphs didn't materialize, they demanded layoffs.
posted by zachlipton at 1:31 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


Magazines have those scammy subscription pages too. I pay for the New Yorker, and every year I have to Google around until an ad pops up offering it for way less than the official price or the somewhat lower renewal price they quoted me in the mail, call them and renew at the non-sucker rate, which is often about $50 cheaper. It is a pain.

The other problem I have is that neither of my local papers here in New Orleans offers any kind of digital subscription, and I have no use for a print paper. I would happily pay The Advocate for a special version of their website that doesn't run malware ads that repeatedly redirect my browser to "you have won an iPad" pages so I can't read their articles.
posted by smelendez at 2:02 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


In one of the incredibly depressing inevitabilities of the 2010s, now lots of the people who just got fired are getting harassment and death threats from 4chan/Gab types.
posted by Copronymus at 2:06 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


Traditional journalism - all forms of traditional media - were very, very confused by the read/write/remix options that the internet brought. It was no longer enough to provide accurate and/or entertaining info in an easy-to-absorb format; you were going to deal with both direct questions/comments and swarms of reactions outside of your range of control.

At first, that was all put in the same bin as "letters to the editor" - a news company could engage with them, or ignore them and just focus on news, and whatever readers said amongst themselves was irrelevant. Eventually, news outlets realized that comments were a double-edged sword: Refuse to host them, and the discussion went elsewhere, carried by a few quotes or screencaps instead of actual article clicks; host them, and you're stuck managing a discussion forum, especially for anything controversial.

(See also: rise of right-wing propaganda disguised as a double-whammy combo of "I'm just sharing facts" and "everyone has the right to an opinion.")
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:16 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Because the problem wasn't so much Amazon coming in, as it was Sears failing to adapt to changing conditions that made its old business model non-viable.

No, Sears failed because it had a parasite named Eddie Lampert latched onto it. And the point with Google/Facebook/Amazon is that they are relying on the content that these sites use to generate revenue, but only return a pittance.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:05 PM on January 25 [8 favorites]


I've never understood why Google doesn't have to pay the NY Times (or whatever content source) some tiny amount every time their search engine pulls up content (even if it's a small bit of preview text) when someone does a search that generates it. It isn't Google's content, after all. I suppose some legal principle settled this at the dawn of the Internet but it seems the answer may be there somehow.
posted by Philemon at 6:11 PM on January 25


Because of Perfect 10, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc. and related cases. And honestly, I don't want that for the same reason that MeFi shouldn't have to pay the NY Times a tiny amount every time someone sees an FPP that quotes a small bit of text from the newspaper. The internet is built on bits of fair use, and trying to extract tiny amounts of value from every reference would destroy the web while not really addressing any of the underlying problems with journalism's business models.
posted by zachlipton at 6:58 PM on January 25 [8 favorites]


I keep telling my wife of sixty years that we have lived in the best of all possible worlds.
posted by notreally at 8:19 PM on January 25


The internet is built on bits of fair use, and trying to extract tiny amounts of value from every reference would destroy the web while not really addressing any of the underlying problems with journalism's business models.

Honestly it just doesn't really make sense to me, morally, that aggregators owe content creators any more than content creators owe aggregators. The problem is that the same companies that dominate aggregation also have a stranglehold on advertising, such that smaller-scale aggregators like MeFi also have to rely on them for revenue.
posted by atoxyl at 8:57 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


i was in political journalism for a minute before all the weeklies went under in 05. the truth dissolving ethos of the W years were enough to turn me off. i was soft, admittedly.

my hat is off to the reporters today who have to deal with the wave of feces generated by the usual mix of right wing trolls and general maniacs. i dont know how they stomach it.

but the lack of job security is the same; my best editor ever drove a geo metro to the last. and another thing that stayed the same is that good reporting must be subsidized by vice. mainstream newspapers sold ads for fridges (yes, appliance shopping is a vice). weeklies sold ads for escorts. and good journalism today will need to get hitched to something profitable too. the wapo/amazon model seems to be working.

exposing corruption in power has never been profitable in and of itself, and it never will be. what needs to adjust is the sort of relationships journalism cultivates with other businesses.
posted by wibari at 9:55 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Once again feeling grateful for being laid off of the media biz ages ago rather than nowadays. Sigh.

Seriously, what is the point of trying to write for money any more?
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:17 PM on January 25


There are plenty of people writing for money - and making a living on Patreon, or selling self-published ebooks, or even blogging with ads.

The hard part is finding enough buyers to pay for infrastructure and overhead in addition to the specific words they want to read.

I suspect that we've become so glutted with content that it's going to take a while for people to realize that "pay for a company to produce curated, informative articles based on verifiable facts" is valuable enough to put serious money toward it. People are comparing how much content they get from a NY Times subscription vs how much they get from Netflix--and right now, Netflix is more important to most people.

Of course, the subscription shenanigans don't help. Neither does the lack of one-shot payments: you didn't need to subscribe to the SF Chronicle to pick up the Sunday paper, or the Wednesday-after-sportsball-tournament paper. Online newspapers are sharply lacking "give us a dollar for access to today's stories" because they don't exactly have "today's stories." (They can have "give us a dollar for access today" - but when you buy a physical newspaper, you can keep it and read the articles at your leisure.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:50 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Another devastating moment for publishers was that about five years ago, (ten years? I no longer know how time works) mobile became a 50/50 split w/desktop and the thing about mobile is you can't sell as many ads. How many ads can you cram into a little screen? So an industry that was already spiraling into the abyss took another huge hit, partnered up with Facebook ("We're focused on social media now!") as if Facebook was going to save them, but Facebook is venal and the revenue shares dropped and for all I know may now be entirely gone.

I may have blocked out some of the timeline; I think I've got PTSD from my front row seat. Somewhere in there was a pivot to video. That will save us! And all over the place is non-stop unverifiable data that everyone knows is fake but is nonetheless used to try desperately to sell ads. All along people mourning the lost classifieds.

Fucking sucks.

I pay for my local paper, WaPo, and TPM. FWIW. Not a lot, it turns out, as I watched Buzzfeed reporters announce their layoffs yesterday.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:57 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]


newspaper companies got used to truly ridiculous profit margins (which went, for the most part, to shareholders, with floor-sweepings to journalists), and built their businesses around the expectation of these high profits. They saw no reason to change, and really couldn't change—because that would have harmed their profitability

See also the music industry (and to a certain extent porn).

The SEC, FCC and related regulatory bodies should have teeth, and their top officials should be elected rather than appointed. Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook should each have been broken apart into component bits by now.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:42 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


Jeremy Littau: For those who aren’t quite sure why these media layoffs keep happening, or think “it’s the internet!” or “people don’t pay to subscribe,” there’s a lot more going on. Though that is part of that. Here’s a cliffs notes version - not exhaustive but it hits the highlights

Littau elaborated on this Twitter thread in a Slate article: The Crisis Facing American Journalism Did Not Start With the Internet
News companies severely misjudged what the internet was. For all our noble beliefs about journalism and democracy, newspapers exist as businesses to create audiences for advertisers that wanted to reach those people, and publications historically built these audiences by helping people meet information needs they have as members of communities or societies. We focus on the “news” in newspaper, but those needs included things like TV guides, birth and death announcements, and calendars of community events. In the pre-internet world, papers functioned as pseudo-monopolies based on the limits of technology and the radius a delivery truck could travel. Online publishing, with its low cost and global reach, changed everything. Those information needs could be met by a wider, more global array of choices. The newspaper was not the only game in town.

Newspapers that once lacked competitors were competing with everyone, and they were unprepared after decades of scant investment. The tragic mistake these companies made was not that they gave away content for free, as one argument goes, but rather that they took too long to realize the internet had destroyed their local monopoly on meeting citizen’s information needs. They should have safeguarded their connection to this community of readers who were their advertising golden goose. Instead, they hunkered down and treated the internet as just another place to publish, and they paid dearly for it.
...
This did not happen overnight, but as technology companies slowly replaced the curatorial role of newspapers—for news, yes, but also for those day-to-day human connections we used to rely on old media to make—the revenue began to tumble until it fell off a cliff during the Great Recession. Between 2000 and 2008, newspaper ad revenue dropped more than 60 percent. Companies increasingly diverted money into digital media companies that could deliver the audiences once reserved for newspaper oligopolies but on a global scale. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s essentially what Google and Facebook do, and it’s no surprise that they are the big winners in this new environment. Google’s parent company Alphabet is the world’s biggest media company in terms of revenue; 21 years ago, Google did not exist.
As Kadin2048 said upthread, the ad duopoly is a problem, but not the problem. Newspapers thrived when they were one of the few things that existed to meet people's broad informational needs, and advertisers went to where the eyeballs were. A lot of the value in newspapers was never strictly journalism: arts calendars, TV guides, horoscopes, crosswords and games, comics, and weather; entire sections are devoted to travel, autos, style and the society pages, and critical reviews of the arts and food, not to mention the classifieds, which beyond being immensely profitable for the paper, were important for employment and commerce. A lot of assumptions were made on the idea that this collection of stuff beyond the pure journalism was all useful and irreplaceable, until it wasn't anymore, and moving the paper online doesn't change that. Similarly, Sears thrived when it was one of the few places that existed to meet people's broad purchasing needs, and then it increasingly wasn't. And in the case of both some newspapers and Sears, hedge fund vultures swept in to pick at the carcasses while they were still meaty. Take away the duopoly, and that problem still exists.
posted by zachlipton at 7:12 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


Funny: Do You Still Have A Job At BuzzFeed? "As you know, the company is going thru a reorganization..." (Buzzfeed)
Among the answers to the survey question "What's Your Favorite Buzzfeed Memory" is "The Try Guys spent eight hours trying to pop a weather balloon right by my desk. It was for Facebook live, and the noise was very distracting. I missed a deadline, and my boss called me incompetent via Slack."
Not Funny: We demand BuzzFeed pay out earned paid time off to its recently laid-off employees. (Medium)
"BuzzFeed is refusing to pay out earned, accrued, and vested paid time off for almost all US employees who have been laid off. They will only pay out PTO to employees in California, where the law requires it."

Over 500 current and laid-off staff have signed the letter.
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:06 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]


The SEC, FCC and related regulatory bodies should have teeth, and their top officials should be elected rather than appointed. Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook should each have been broken apart

These two things are almost mutually exclusive. If the heads of the SEC and FCC were elected, you'd have the Amazon Prime Securities Commission and the FCC Powered by XFINITY.

Allowing the average low-information voter to directly weigh in on the heads of regulatory agencies would be a disaster. We'd be irrigating crops with Brawndo within a year.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:45 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]


Stratechery: The BuzzFeed Lesson
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:30 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


My conspiracy theory is that people (especially those in the news and opinion departments) are being laid off because they're TOO GOOD at reporting Government foibles & scandals that those in power have threatened their head companies to get rid of them OR ELSE.

It's happened to Malaysian press.
posted by divabat at 7:04 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


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