Letter from the Editor

A Manifesto

Newspapers and magazines won’t vanish. But they will change.

  • This letter appeared in the May/June 2009 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • April 21, 2009

Even 15 years ago, Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, those 18th-century London gallants and the founders of the Spectator, would have recognized the modes of business that characterized our newspapers and magazines. Not now.

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher.

For 300 years, two related sources of revenues sustained journals: subscriptions and advertising. But the Internet taught readers they might read stories whenever they liked without charge, and it offered companies more-efficient ways to advertise. Both parties spent less. Today, media companies are sickly.

As I write, the New York Times Company is threatening to close the Boston Globe if the latter will not produce $20 million in union concessions. But those cuts could not make the paper profitable. The Globe, which the Times Company bought for $1.1 billion in 1993, would lose $85 million in 2009 without the concessions. Everywhere, newspapers and magazines are going broke.

What can be done to save them? Among those who write about new media, a fashionable wisdom has emerged, expressed most energetically by Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University. In “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” a much-distributed post on his blog, he writes, “Round and round [it] goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work.”

The Götterdämmerung-of-mainstream-media argument has a weak and strong formulation. Shirky himself is an eloquent exponent of the gentler version. He argues, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” Shirky believes that the coming decades will see a variety of nonprofit experiments whose funding sources will be similar to those that have sustained him as an academic, such as endowments, sponsorships, and grants. One day, some innovator will stumble upon something that will reliably subsidize the journals of the future.

The strong version is most associated with Dave Winer, a grumpy California software programmer best known for helping to develop the Web-feed format RSS and for his blog, Scripting News. Winer has written, and not without glee, “Fifteen years ago I was unhappy with the way journalism was practiced in the tech industry, so I took matters into my own hands. And then dozens of people did, and then hundreds followed, and now we get much better information about tech. It will happen everywhere, in politics, education, the military, health, science, you name it. The sources will fill in where we used to need journalists. … Everyone is now a journalist.”

If media companies can’t earn money, and everyone is a journalist, it follows that “amateurs” (Shirky) and “sources” (Winer) will be part of a “decentralized” media (Winer), whose stories will be distributed by “excitable 14-year-olds” (Shirky).

This is all folly and ignorance. Shirky, Winer, and other evangelists know nothing about the business of media. True, the journalists who write about these matters for mainstream media often know as little; I didn’t understand much until I became the publisher of Technology Review. But Shirky and Winer are disgruntled consumers and, as bloggers, advocates for an insurrection. Thus, they are to be read skeptically. Their prescriptions would be more convincing if they were less polemical and better informed by some knowledge of what publishers sell.

Shirky and Winer share the conviction that media-as-a-­business, with its attendant professional writers, editors, art directors, directors of consumer marketing, and advertising salespeople, is dying. That’s because they conflate mainstream media with printing presses. As Shirky explains, “Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. … [But] the competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it.”

For decades, most print publications have cheaply rented presses owned by third parties–but let that go. The printing press stands here as an objective correlative for the material production and distribution of media. Shirky and Winer’s real error is that the physical is the least of it. The creation of good journalism is a tremendously laborious process, requiring an infrastructure more expensive than any press. The illustration and design of stories has an infrastructure, too. Developing an audience that will attract particular advertisers requires another infrastructure. Selling advertising requires yet another. These structures, which allow publications to reach large, coherent audiences, can exist only within complex organizations, mostly businesses.

Some of those structures must be reinvented for the Internet. Others, particularly editorial, still work well. I am sure of this, because the number of people who read newspapers and magazines is growing. Of course, with few exceptions that growth is all digital. To take one example, between 14 million and 22 million read nytimes.com every month; the print circulation of the weekday Times is just one million. On any day, 32 million Americans read their news online. Those numbers suggest contented customers. Of course there is a good business for mainstream media in electronic publishing. The absorbing question is how to pay for what pleases so many.

It is a canard that neither mainstream media’s managers nor its journalists have good answers to that question. There are plenty of stupid publishers and editors, and their publications will die; but there are many smart, technology-savvy leaders, too, and their publications will prosper. While the details are still debated, the broad outlines of tomorrow’s media are becoming clearer. Consumers must pay for more of what they read; publishers and the media buyers who purchase advertising must be given technologies that will make online display ads more competitive with the keyword ads that search firms sell. It won’t be easy. I have my own prescription, and those who care (the specifics are technical, and mainly of interest to media professionals) can read my suggestions at www.technologyreview.com/blog/pontin/.

Things change or die, including once-cherished organizations. Today’s newspapers and magazines will be transformed or replaced by other publications, which will have new modes of business. A great and terrible clearing is coming. Millions of amateurs will flourish to delight readers. But anyone who tells you that media-as-a-business is dying is wrong.

Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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