When Monopoly Capitalism Broke the News
As a rookie reporter, I encountered more abandoned cubicles and stacks of back issues in newsrooms than incarnations of All the President’s Men.
Before the rise of digital media, a small number of newspapers had the advantage of a veritable monopoly on both vital information and advertising space. These newspapers were profitable in the unsustainable way all monopolies are profitable.
Now the Internet and the economic crisis have dismantled these long-unchallenged monopolies.
But I hear times were once good.
As information gatekeepers, newspapers decided what stories to sell each day and those decisions were often driven by forces other than editorial judgment. Ads were sold at exorbitant rates because space was scarce and demand was high. Newspapers grew from family businesses to public companies; in the process, they succumbed to typical market demands, catering to advertisers and investors and ignoring the less lucrative needs of readers.
Publishers who lived through the corporate heyday of newspapers viewed the Internet’s power to transform news reporting and news consumption as a direct threat, something to challenge and defeat, but as monopolists they weren’t fully prepared for the competition.
The mainstream media adopted online news only after the information gatekeepers begrudgingly filed their own stories of failed monopoly capitalism. For many papers, like the Rocky Mountain News, this revelation has been too little, too late.
“Why a once-profitable industry suddenly seems as outmoded as America's automakers is a tale that involves arrogance, mistakes, eroding trust and the rise of a digital world in which newspapers feel compelled to give away their content,” Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz wrote the other day.
As online media expands, a big void in investigative journalism will need to be filled, something Pro Publica is already trying to do. But much more needs to be done in this space. “If all the big papers disappeared right now and we replaced them with 50 TPMs, it wouldn't come close to doing the job," Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo told Kurtz.
The next generation of journalists needs to learn how to gather and report news in ways that better fit this new environment. Online reporting first appeared in my college’s course catalog in 2007. For journalism majors, it was an elective, not a requirement.