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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

People just figured if they were going to be fed B.S., they might as well get their daily regimen from a source that doesn't dirty your fingers or require a tree holocaust every week or so... The argument that print failed because it sold out its values is true to any media, not just print. The ease of access that you get with the internet will not resolve whatever moral dilemnas a journalist could be having.

Anonymous

People just figured if they were going to be fed B.S., they might as well get their daily regimen from a source that doesn't dirty your fingers or require a tree holocaust every week or so... The argument that print failed because it sold out its values is true to any media, not just print. The ease of access that you get with the internet will not resolve whatever moral dilemnas a journalist could be having.

AV

It is now well known that most of the major US printed media outlets are dominated by companies who indirectly (and in some cases, directly) control the truth-value of the "news" to their advantage. The rise of alternative, digitized media is a *good* thing. We are no longer dependent on a select few sources; we are becoming less and less vulnerable to the implicit ideologies by which they'd like us to interpret the world. There is no compelling argument to be made in favor of the view that newspaper corporations should be defended. Let them die off.

AV

It is now well known that most of the major US printed media outlets are dominated by companies who indirectly (and in some cases, directly) control the truth-value of the "news" to their advantage. The rise of alternative, digitized media is a *good* thing. We are no longer dependent on a select few sources; we are becoming less and less vulnerable to the implicit ideologies by which they'd like us to interpret the world. There is no compelling argument to be made in favor of the view that newspaper corporations should be defended. Let them die off.

Anonymous

You wrote: "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." Wait a minute here -- it is archaic, and yet there was an era when the print media answered to the reader? Corporate news has always existed within an advertiser-supported model, even in the heyday of dead tree newspapers. You seem naive to think that the print media answered to the reader -- they always answered to the advertiser. Repeat after me: Even during watergate, the corporate media never answered to the reader. It was always about the advertiser, the money, and today is no different. If we can accept this, that Western print media has always been beholden to the advertiser, perhaps we can discuss how a free media should act. The reader was never a concern. - Huey

Anonymous

You wrote: "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." Wait a minute here -- it is archaic, and yet there was an era when the print media answered to the reader? Corporate news has always existed within an advertiser-supported model, even in the heyday of dead tree newspapers. You seem naive to think that the print media answered to the reader -- they always answered to the advertiser. Repeat after me: Even during watergate, the corporate media never answered to the reader. It was always about the advertiser, the money, and today is no different. If we can accept this, that Western print media has always been beholden to the advertiser, perhaps we can discuss how a free media should act. The reader was never a concern. - Huey

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