Opinion | How the news industry economy has altered the news itself

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In unpleasant times, for example now, nostalgia can be a narcotic. It is, however, reasonable to look back with nostalgia to when newspapers were filled with advertisements for department stores, grocery stores, and car dealerships.

And news, largely distressing: the world is a fallen place and, as the journalists say, we do not report the planes that land safely. However, newspapers mattered more and functioned differently, when they were essentially supported by advertising for local businesses, rather than, as many are increasingly, digital subscriptions from readers.

So says Andrey Mir in “How the Media Polarized Us” in the City Journal of the Manhattan Institute. The title of Mir’s essay deals with “media” and “newspapers”, his main topic, as synonyms. But social media and cable television pushed newspapers in their direction.

Mir, the author of “Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers,” says the Internet is the culprit because it has destroyed the newspaper monopoly of gathering for advertisers a large audience of the kind of readers that advertisers value: wealthy and mature. The “dependence of newspapers on advertising”, Mir believes, “has determined their attitude towards readers”. It was a respectful attitude towards readers who want to express their opinions and who are against the political agendas put forward in the news.

The collapse of the newspaper advertising business model began with the migration of classifieds to the Internet. In 2000, they gave newspapers $ 19.6 billion, about a third of the newspaper’s revenue. In 2013, Google’s $ 51 billion in advertising revenue eclipsed total US newspaper advertising revenue by $ 23 billion. By 2018, ad revenue was just $ 2.2 billion. Advertisers increasingly concluded, says Mir, that newspaper advertising was “an expensive and inefficient method of carpet-bombing their targeted audience.” And ad revenue has started to lag far behind reader revenue.

“Even the strongest American newspapers,” says Mir, “could not contain advertisers: The New York Times started getting more revenue from readers than advertisements in 2012.” Thus, “journalism was now looking for new partners”: digital subscriptions, the multiplication of which could be driven by anger and fear, the fertilizers of polarization. The editors “stirred the digitized, urban, educated and progressive youth to political indignation.”

The newspaper advertising business model, which appeals to the temperate core of society, “kept the natural liberal disposition of journalists in check.” The digital subscription business model “elevated the role of progressive speechmakers” – academics and other social justice warriors – and “reinforced activism as a mentality.” The new model is defined by the “intensity of self-expression in pursuit of the response”. By the early 2010s, “the advertising-driven need to appeal to the median American,” says Mir, had been replaced by the search for digital subscriptions by ideologically motivated readers.

The “awareness threshold” – 60 percent of a cohort using social media – was reached for 18-49 year olds in college-educated cities. A more conservative demographic crossed that threshold in 2016, the year of a political earthquake that provided the mainstream media with a commodity to sell to digital subscribers: Donald Trump as an “existential danger.”

Suddenly, Mir says, the registrations could be solicited as “donations to a cause” – “the resistance” and all. “Fright has come to replace news as a commodity.” This new business model “has made the media the agents of polarization”. The right-wing media quickly learned the new game of selling the thrill of fear instead of the news: the fear of being demographically “replaced”, of K-12 political and sexual indoctrination, etc.

Mir believes that this has resulted in “post-journalism”, whereby the mainstream media does not deliver news but “news validation”, the validation of disturbing news “within certain value systems”. This business model – the media as “polarizing agents” – results in the stratification of newspapers because, says Mir, it produces great rewards for only a few nationally significant newspapers:

“People want disturbing news validated by an authoritative notary with a larger following. The public only wants to pay for flagship media, like the New York Times or the Washington Post. … Most of the subscription money flows to some giants. The new subscription model has led not only to media polarization, but also to media concentration. “

Mir says that while journalism wanted its image of the world to adapt to the world, “post-journalism wants the world to adapt to its image.” This, he says, “is a definition of propaganda. Post-journalism has transformed the media into crowdfunding-funded Ministries of Truth ”. Although he paints with a broad brush and few pastels, there is an adjective that fits his portrayal of today’s media world: noteworthy.

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