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The Death of Print

Why the bottom fell out.

“Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism; when a great one goes, like the New York Herald Tribune, history itself is denied a devoted witness.” —Richard Kluger, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

The print industry I grew up admiring is dying. But even as its own narcissistic headlines bemoan the death of print, the industry is still trying to hang in there … even if it means slashing its integrity by going to bed with the advertisers instead of the readers.

As a neophyte journalist, the print industry I am clumsily ambling into is clinging to the almost-extinct talons of corporate advertisers. The New Yorker tells us that a quarter of all newspaper jobs have disappeared since 1990. Print editions are hemorrhaging readers. The money has dried up as the Infobahn soaks up the attention of the readers and, more importantly to the future of the publication, advertisers.

Newspapers originally fought hard to hold public figures accountable – they broke Watergates-esque investigative pieces and generally sought to serve the public as the respected fourth estate – and the industry grew with its successes. Newspapers were a trusted source and circulations climbed to record numbers.

As readership grew, advertisers, of course, ate it up. This is where the leak started. In order to sell newspapers, the industry shifted its accountability to the advertiser. They were the ones now paying the salaries. The print world carved out its own niche to better serve its advertisers, not its readers. Newspapers shifted to a 60/40 ad-to-content ratio, which has now fallen to 70/30 or worse in some cases. The print model became fundamentally flawed. It was just a waiting game until the bottom fell out.

It was poor judgment to build a public enterprise on an advertiser-dependent structure. Of course there was going to be a time when the advertisers jumped ship. In this year’s first quarter, US newspaper print advertising sales plummeted by nearly 30 percent, according to the Newspaper Association of America. And thanks to Craigslist and Kijiji, the classified ads – once newspapers’ bread and butter – plunged by 42 percent. It’s the biggest fall since 1971 (the earliest date figures were collected). And it’s no surprise that the advertisers dumped their coin into the Internet. Some $1 billion in American advertising shifted from print and TV to the web in 2008.

Relying on an advertiser-supported business model is archaic, not to mention dangerous. If it is to survive, the print industry needs to revisit the era when they answered to the reader. When they fought to bring down crooked politicians instead of fighting to clutch onto advertisers. As we can all see now, the advertisers were never loyal companions anyway.

Ryan Bolton’s writing has appeared in publications like the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, The Dominion and Journalists for Human Rights. He is currently an editor and writer with Free the Children in Toronto.

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46 comments on the article “The Death of Print”

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Anonymous

Nice fantasy, that there was once some ideal press roaming about the land, intrepid reporters wearing out their shoe leather just trying to get at the Truth, dammit. Watergate came after the lies of Vietnam, the Red Scare... going back to Hearst's Spanish-American War. And then there was that innovation of sports news, which isn't news at all. It would be handy you could give us some kind of watermark that would tell us where newspapers made this change to serving advertisers and wealthy patrons and such, when they gave up their fierce dedication to readers and society and truth.

Anonymous

Nice fantasy, that there was once some ideal press roaming about the land, intrepid reporters wearing out their shoe leather just trying to get at the Truth, dammit. Watergate came after the lies of Vietnam, the Red Scare... going back to Hearst's Spanish-American War. And then there was that innovation of sports news, which isn't news at all. It would be handy you could give us some kind of watermark that would tell us where newspapers made this change to serving advertisers and wealthy patrons and such, when they gave up their fierce dedication to readers and society and truth.

Anonymous

It would be tough to pinpoint an exact time when the transition happened, i think we can agree. Maybe the late 70s, early 80s when newspapers really grew -- when the advertisers started to pay attention. When everthing went to shit, in other words.

Anonymous

It would be tough to pinpoint an exact time when the transition happened, i think we can agree. Maybe the late 70s, early 80s when newspapers really grew -- when the advertisers started to pay attention. When everthing went to shit, in other words.

Anonymous

"...co-opted by mainstream politics, and ultimately, capitalism itself. " who needs newpapers anyway when they are collectively just a corporate mouthpiece

Anonymous

"...co-opted by mainstream politics, and ultimately, capitalism itself. " who needs newpapers anyway when they are collectively just a corporate mouthpiece

Jonny

"Relying on an advertiser-supported business model is archaic, not to mention dangerous" Isn't this precisely Google's archaic business model?

Jonny

"Relying on an advertiser-supported business model is archaic, not to mention dangerous" Isn't this precisely Google's archaic business model?

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