I’ve had almost no time to post here in the past few weeks, as I just began studying for the bar, but I wanted to take a break from studying Evidence and Torts for a second. I have owed my friend Brad Greenberg, a fellow UCLA law new-grad, some attention. Brad’s most recent contribution to the world of legal academia is available here, and it covers a topic that should be interesting to law nerds and normal nerds alike – the survival (or, alternately, impending doom) of the newspaper industry. And the discussion is currently as alive as ever, with recent discussion of the topic focusing on the New Orleans Times-Picayune laying off staff despite it’s profitability.
Brad’s paper can be broken down into a few key arguments:
- Newspapers need to make more money than they are making now to survive,
- Collusion to set paywall prices could save them, but antitrust law bans such action,
- Congress should endorse and promote an exception to the antitrust laws to save the newspaper and the United States itself (I added that last part…).
Typical for a guy with multiple published pieces who also blogs on the side, Brad’s piece is refreshingly easy to read for a law article – but that doesn’t mean I agree with his points. Actually, I disagree with just about every one of them. Originally I thought of reasons why each point was wrong – newspapers can make money without paywalls, newspapers could probably escape antitrust charges through signaling their concerted action anyway, points about how the last government-endorsed entertainment/news monopoly (cable) has set us back by a decade. But really, none of those things matter, because ultimately the newspaper is dead and our children simply won’t care because the world will be just fine without them:
Welcome to the 21st Century, now with 100% less Newspaper -
Newspapers were lazy, crappy, overachieving businesses for decades. These weren’t glamorous jobs, necessarily, but they weren’t well-run businesses either. Major newspapers lived off of two major cash cows – the natural monopolies of the classifieds and print ads. The network effect of having everybody in town looking at the same few pages of paper everyday let newspapers turn 10 cents of ink into a $1,000 ad or a $100 classified. If you needed to fill a job opening in the pre-internet era, you went to the newspaper, and you paid whatever it cost. Couch to sell? Car to sell? Plumbing services to offer for consumption? Same deal. Call the newspaper. The rest of the business wasn’t particularly fine-tuned, because it didn’t need to be.
A decade of Facebook, Google Adsense, and Craigslist later, and suddenly those ad monopolies are gone. Newspapers now offer an unattractive product (ie we pick the news that’s important, deliver it to you in a physical format once a day, and you pay for it) compared to what the internet offers (ie you pick the news you want, whenever you want it, and you don’t pay for it). It’s a lot like what’s happening right now with cable: people are realizing they shouldn’t have to pay for the 200 channels full of shows they don’t watch when all they want is Mad Men and Game of Thrones, and they can watch those on-demand online (if not completely legally at this point). The fundamental problem facing newspapers is the same one facing cable, but the newspapers don’t have any unique content. The papers that do have unique content (for example, the Wall Street Journal) are having less trouble staying profitable, because they have something they can charge for and make a margin on. The ones that don’t are struggling to drive readers to their website, because in all likelihood those readers are already getting that same news from the few sites that have successfully transitioned online already. Content with value will always find a way to get out – but most papers just don’t have much content of value, and that’s a business problem, not a societal one.
But Brad would tell me that I’m focusing too much on the business and not enough on the societal benefits of the newspapers; ‘why don’t you lament the loss of our bold muckrakers, Dan?’ he might contest. For the most part, I just don’t think there is any risk that the sort of injustice newspapers cover will go uncovered in a digital world. As newspapers die and websites take their place, journalists will make careers (though likely fewer) of breaking and covering the same stories as they did when those stories were cast in ink. Will that make it easier to “corrupt” the news with bribes? To corner the market on an area of journalism and subvert it? Who could say at this point, but the bottom line is, newspapers are on the way out and personally curated digital news has already taken over. I’m almost certain we wouldn’t have missed Watergate if we had only had Twitter to rely on, but only time will tell.