When print media started making the move to digital, newspapers were cautiously optimistic. The transition was inevitable as the internet became ubiquitous. It’s not like the newspapers could simply opt out of digitising. And who knows, maybe hosting the news online could prove to be a lucrative new revenue stream for the already thin-margined print media industry. Right?
Text media monetisation has been an ongoing uphill battle for basically every single news outlet from the moment it started. Corners are being cut on a daily basis, and over 2,000 local newspapers have entirely closed down since 2000, just in the United States alone.
As MIT researcher George Westerman eloquently said, “When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”
The move online, which seemed so promising, has in actuality proved devastating for text media. So, what went wrong, and how is this catastrophic shift turning us all into idiots?
Back to that cautious optimism. The transition from print to digital was going to be such a great thing and provide a revitalising boost to the print media market. Journalists could cover stories faster, publish updates in real-time, send out quick corrections, and otherwise be far more nimble than print ever allowed.
Not to mention the obvious cost-saving aspects. Readers could access the exact same news without the high costs associated with producing, printing, and delivering physical newspapers.
Before we can talk about the current tragic impacts of digital media on the average consumer, let's first talk about what went wrong. Why are the remaining newspapers haemorrhaging money? The future looked so promising but took such a rapid nosedive.
Future economists will probably analyse the fall of the media to death because it is fascinating. This reductionist list will likely only scratch the surface of how this massive industry was crippled so quickly and utterly. But here are the main reasons media orgs fumbled the transition from print to digital.
Understandably, but a bit naively, newspapers made banner and on-page ads a big part of resolving their revenue gaps when physical paper subscriptions began to dwindle in the late 1990s. This makes sense in theory – readers paid for physical newspapers and still saw ample printed ads, so why would they take issue with free digital content… and a few ads?
So, they made everything accessible with the expectation that ads would generate revenue. Obviously, this blew up in their faces with the invention and rapid uptake of adblockers. Soon, media consumers were getting their cake and eating it too – all the news media at their fingertips with none of the pesky revenue generated for the media outlets whose print ads were also drying up at a fever pitch.
Unfortunately, by this point, consumers were conditioned to get the news for free. Why would they suddenly start paying for something if they never had to before?
Eventually, many digital newspapers started going to the membership and subscription model. But this transition did not happen unilaterally (and still hasn’t, to be fair). Some newspapers began requiring a subscription, while others didn’t. Some allowed for a few “free” articles per month, making it possible for consumers to cobble together a media consumption diet around these restrictions while avoiding paying for anything. Paywalls, in addition, were often leaky and easy to circumvent.
Realistically, many of us find the news through search aggregates like Google News. If one source is blocking your ability to read the story, you could simply go to the next. This is great (albeit a little annoying) for consumers and bad for the media outlets, who expected consumers to be a bit more brand loyal than they turned out to be, particularly their younger readers.
Even if you get somebody to loyally subscribe to your newspaper, what stops them from simply copying the text and sharing it with friends, relatives, and internet strangers? You may be thinking, “When would this happen? When would someone actually take the time to copy and paste news text to other people enough for this to be a significant problem?”
Well, Reddit, for starters.
Reddit is a massive discussion board for people to come together and anonymously analyse the day's biggest stories (and everything else in existence). A user will post a link to a news article, and everyone will very politely and never aggressively present their perspective about said news article. This sort of distribution seems good for news outlets because it means clicks, views, and engagement.
Unfortunately, for convenience, the poster will often include the entire body of the linked article within their Reddit post. And, if there's a paywall, someone who happens to have a legitimate subscription will copy and share the entire article with tens of thousands of people who otherwise would never have been able to read it without a subscription. This minor issue becomes a much bigger issue when you realise that Reddit on its own has almost 56 million daily active users.
Some news outlets have even taken to copyright-striking various Reddit communities, according to Redditors, but it barely makes a dent in a much bigger problem (for the news outlets). And Reddit is just one very specific example of consumers copying paywalled text to general, non-paying audiences.
So many people assume that because the majority of the population is functionally literate, anybody can be a writer or journalist. With the increasing popularity of AI tools, this sentiment is only rising. It doesn't help that many writers and journalists take massive shortcuts and are essentially forced to cut corners to stay competitive, further eroding our collective respect for journalism.
And even if the average person did respect the institution of journalism, they certainly don't trust it. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, trust in the media is incredibly low. Only 7% of Americans interviewed actually held “a great deal” of confidence/trust in journalism to report the news fairly and accurately.
This again begs the question, why would people willingly pay for something they neither trust nor respect?
How many times have you heard the phrase, “I recently read this thing…” and you know they are either going to tell you about a viral TikTok they watched or a headline they read and made a snap judgement about? The reality is that attention spans are shot. The average person is on a constant media consumption overload, and nobody has the time to read a 10,000-word investigative journalism piece unless it’s for a university essay or while languishing on their retirement yacht.
Sure, people are constantly scrolling. But how much are they actually reading?
If all of the above factors only affected the bottom line of the news media outlets, that would be one thing. We could collectively mourn the profit losses and continue with our lives basically unaffected. However, this shift away from text media and long-form content, in general, is having some pretty devastating impacts on individuals and our collective intelligence.
Yes, billion. With a b.
It's not fair to say that the massive shift away from thoughtful, investigative, accessible news media led to the rapid degradation of the average person's ability to think critically and process information. But it certainly hasn’t helped.
The reality is that every political and social party feels like there is news bias and censorship stacked against them. Because the news outlets are haemorrhaging money, they have to rely on overly sensationalised drama to generate clicks and (minuscule) revenue. Rage gets people talking. Making people mad drives revenue. So simultaneously making everyone feel like an angry, righteous victim – well that’s just good business.
Newspapers are no longer interested in the truth (despite already being kinda biased before), but in how the truth can be manipulated and packaged to capture the tiny attention spans of people who are now conditioned to only focus on the things they hate. As one NYT and NPR journalist puts it, there’s an insidious “bad news bias” that has overtaken the news media industry.
So, if you can’t believe the news because it’s all rage-bait click farming and you lack the attention span or interest to peruse dense scientific journals to get your facts (which are often biased as well), what is the average human supposed to do? Who can you trust to be honest for one damn second?
All this is to say, I don’t think the average person is willfully dumb. I think we’re all just doing our best to navigate a completely partisan, profit-driven, rage-based attention economy that is rapidly being eroded by one affiliate marketing-laden news story after another.
Thankfully, I have come up with a comprehensive and completely foolproof solution for this entire problem that will solve the monetisation issue, repair our eroded trust in the media, and save the average consumer a ton of money in subscription fees.
I have no idea what we're supposed to do about this. I do know that what we are doing isn't working. Even the few profitable news outlets rely on sketchy and ethically questionable affiliate marketing techniques or subscriptions to their largely older, affluent bases (“The No. 1 reason we lose subscribers is they die”).
Any reasonable solution will inevitably take a Herculean effort from both sides: it will require media consumers to willfully invest in paying for the news if they want high-quality, unbiased news coverage that isn’t profit-driven. And it'll require media outlets to report the news in ethical, audience-friendly, accessible ways.
So yeah, we’re screwed.