ONCE upon a time newspapers seemed unassailable: they survived the arrival of popular radio, commercial television and the proliferation of satellite TV. And despite all the odds they kept pulling in those lucrative advertising dollars year after year.
They relentlessly saw off the competition and kept on partying, only waking up with an immense (and inevitable) hangover when a new dawn came in the 1990s.
That new dawn was the internet. And it brought with it a very different day of reckoning to the ones brought by radio, TV, satellite and the promise of early bulletin boards such as PRESTEL.
Yet to say the newspaper industry’s response to the internet was cack-handed is under-stating the case by a considerable margin.
Big newspaper groups made the first, and fatal, mistake by giving away what their customers were willing to pay for – the quality and quantity of news in a newspaper. Even today, TV and radio cannot match a newspaper for breadth and depth of news.
So busy were newspapers trying to corner this new “internet” market by giving away news as a loss-leader (think below-cost milk in supermarkets), they took their eye off one of their chief sources of revenue – advertising.
If not explicitly stated, the industry clearly appeared to believe the advertising dollars would flow to them in bountiful (and increasing) abundance as had always happened whatever the competition was in the past.
Except the dollars didn’t. And still haven’t.
What actually happened, in piecemeal and random nature, was this: the newspaper industry’s sources of ad revenue were picked off one by one by smarter people who had better ways to sell property, motors and sit.vacs. All online, of course.
These tech innovators, not to mention Google, realised they could serve advertisers’ and consumers’ needs without any of that awkward and costly baggage called news. (News, if nothing else, is not cheap.)
Yet the newspaper industry was so busy giving away news and pictures online it failed to see how the internet offered other ways, other than display ads and classifieds, of catering for advertisers. All this at a time when newspapers had vast war chests they could have spent on innovation.
Just pick up a paper from the 1970s and look at it. Really, you’d wonder why anyone then would ever: buy a car from a classified ad with no pic, purchase a house advertised with just one b&w pic or decide to join an miserly employer who could only afford a lineage ad.
OK, it’s all relative and no other medium – apart from commercial TV with its sky-high ad rates – was doing it any better at the time. But the newspaper industry has just sat there in a time warp and let one of its chief sources of revenue disappear.
Who now buys a house without looking online at the pictures and using the contact button to reach the advertiser? Who doesn’t read as much as they can about a used car online (either trade or private sale) before ringing the seller? And who on earth would respond to a 1960s-style ad that only said: “Maid wanted. Ring CITy 2343”?
Too late in the day came the industry responses to this haemorrhaging of revenue to those new tech upstarts. Paywalls, online ads and “native advertising” (AKA advertising features in disguise) clearly aren’t making the news business profitable in the way advertising used to in the old days.
As it happens, a decade ago last month (Sub’s note: FEB 2006), Alan Rusbridger, then Editor of the Guardian, said Craig Newmark of US classified ad website Craigslist has got “tanks on our lawn”.
To that list Rusbridger should have added: every estate agent with a house to sell; every car owner, maker and dealer; every bank and retailer; every kind of employer; every public utility and government department; every sporting club; and, damn it, even all the lonely hearts out there. Not just nationally but locally and regionally.
And there came a moment some time later when a UK newspaper group was selling its regional titles and a top brass said something along the lines of: “We’re in the wrong industry – we should be in the advertising industry.”
You could see where the top brass was coming from even if you didn’t entirely agree with him (and I’d imagine one CP Scott wouldn’t). But those kinds of sentiments should have been acted upon in the early 1990s when the first internet browsers came out.
The same big newspaper groups that enthusiastically adopted IT in the 1980s (as a way to shaft the comps and print unions) amazingly couldn’t see what Netscape could offer them a mere decade later. So much so, Netscape was disabled on the Apple Macs at one big newspaper where I worked in the 1990s.
Still, not for the first time has the newspaper industry been blinkered in the face of obvious change, technological or otherwise. After all, one can one still read in Private Eye: “New technology baffles pissed old hack”.
Whether journalists like to admit it or not, advertising matters for newspaper groups. There is only so far you can hike the cover price to offset lower ad revenue. Some local newspapers in the UK are discovering just what happens when you expect the public to pay top dollar for recycled council press releases.
Now that the valve on the tap of advertising revenue is closing for newspapers, big names have even less money to pour into news and are implementing deep cuts. News was and remains labour-intensive work and is expensive to gather properly. After all, a newspaper these days has to live on the quality of its news. You certainly wouldn’t buy a newspaper for its ads any more.
By A.D. Vert