If there’s one graph that charts the decline of modern journalism, it’s this:
There was a time when news was the only viable way to engage the vast majority of the public every day. Good journalism earned readership, and readers’ attention translated directly into advertising revenue.
But with the advent of digital advertising, and then social media, that connection was disrupted. This ushered in an existential crisis that has lasted for over a decade, with newsmakers and gatherers struggling to uphold their journalistic ideals as their revenues evaporated.
Now, as the reliance on advertising wanes, journalism is about to rise from the ashes.
The first signs
In the beginning of the ’90s, newspapers competed for reach and efficiency, but it was a balanced playing field where quality was rewarded.
The unrivalled reach and passable targeting of newspapers meant that advertising was a viable option for supporting all kinds of journalism, from tabloid to investigative.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, slowly, that position began to slip. Digital overtook print, and social media rose in prominence as an advertising medium — with hyper-focused targeting and an ever-expanding audience.
Print revenues began to fall, and the narrative was that the problem was the medium — “web was king”, and nobody read papers any more.
So journalism adapted: papers pushed for “digital transformation”, their web properties blossomed, plummeting ad revenues paused momentarily, and then renewed their precipitous decline with ever-increasing vigour.
By 2012 the writing was on the wall. Journalists were laid off in their droves, and those that remained were pushed to produce content faster, cheaper. By 2015, once-respected publications were churning out anything that would bring in readers. They began to write clickbait.
Like a crab being slowly warmed in the pot, the newspapers responded to their declining incomes by generating content more cheaply, the quality of the journalism decreased, and they survived a little longer, and a little longer while failing to address the inevitable end. At every step, they resisted the move, journalists talked about the financial difficulties they faced, but they made do, and they kept writing.
But there is no equalisation point; this is not a problem that can be solved by the world’s journalists tightening their collective belts. The media industry is not run by journalists alone.
Social media precipitates free content. One cannot compete on price with free. Journalism needs to stop being “content”, and start being a product.
The new model
To be in the ad market you either need to have comparable targeting to them, which is almost impossible except in extremely niche areas, or you need to rely on their targeting, at which point you no longer have a profitable business — they can extract whatever tithe they like from you and there is no competition.
The journalism industry has finally come to recognise this; it has felt the heat and clawed itself up to the rim, from where it can now see the new world. The landscape has shifted, and there are fundamental changes to be made; but they are rising to the challenge and finding that there is a way for them to survive, perhaps even to thrive. There is value in old-school quality journalism, and people are willing to pay for it.
Carl Bernstein, the great man whose work with Bob Woodward effectively toppled President Nixon, once said that the true purpose of journalism is to provide the public with the “best obtainable version of the truth”. Despite a decade of denigration, this core value of journalism is still as relevant today, perhaps even more relevant, than it ever was in the days when owning a couple of newspapers could put you on the Forbes fifteen.
This is the dawn of a new era for journalism, potentially an opportunity to usher in a new golden age. Global trust is at an all-time low — politicians are derided, businesses feared, the very institutions of democracy and capitalism that have guaranteed freedom and faith are being questioned. People are crying out for direction, for someone to hold the powerful accountable.
This is the role for the journalists of tomorrow — not collating videos of cats, firing off rapid-fire reporting pieces, or snapping an endless parade of celebrities. The public no longer want clickbait from newspapers; social media can fulfil that vice, they want stalwarts for truth.
Remarkably, it seems that the social value of journalism can also be its economic saviour.
This year, The Guardian topped 400,000 paying readers. Digital revenues climbed by 15%, and revenues from voluntary donations and subscriptions outstripped ad revenues for the first time in the paper’s history.
At the same time, FT has a paid subscription base of over 800,000 readers, more than half of whom have digital subscriptions, the New York Times is seeing unprecedented growth in paying customers, and Trinity Mirror has released its own ad-free subscription service.
The message is simple — people are willing to pay for quality journalism. We cannot demean the work done by the industry by saying it must be worth less than the dross spewed out by Netflix. Journalism can be the cornerstone of democracy, the vital raw ingredient for understanding the world, and charting a course through it.
If journalists need to make money, if the press wants to survive, it has to start seeing ad-funding as an alternative to having a business model, a fallback, a failure case.
We need to regain the trust of our audience. We need to earn back the respect and appreciation that “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Cats” has so effectively worn away, and we need to ask to be paid for reliable, dependable quality.
Clickbait has had its day, and the era of impoverished, ad-funded, vapid journalism is coming to a close. Tomorrow’s journalism will be high quality, investigative, trustworthy and paid for. The failure of the advertising model has been a tragedy for newsmakers and gatherers, but it will be looked back on as a blessing in disguise.
Great journalists use Krzana to find pre-news.