The Daily Beast has a story out today that Think Progress, the progressive news site which is part of the The Center for American Progress, faces a vast budget shortfall of something like $3 million. The story says TP experienced a 40% decline in ad revenues in just one year. This has spurred a new flurry of conversation about the financial woes of the news media and the particular claim that the news industry somehow used the platforms (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as crutches or outsourced their traffic and distribution and monetization to the platforms and now have only themselves to blame.
Let me start by saying that at least on the traffic side TPM has never been very dependent on the platforms. Changes in Google or Facebook algorithms largely spared us because we always depended more on a dedicated audience than SEO and Facebook distribution and stuff like that. I say this only to note that what follows isn’t a matter of defensiveness or self-justification. I’m largely talking about what other publications did.
So did the news business get lazy and outsource distribution and monetization to the platforms? Not really. News organizations may also have been lazy, stupid or just bad at planning. Believe me. They’re all those things. They stink on ice, as the phrase goes. Indeed, many of the newer VC-backed entrants to the field entered the space specifically to leverage the distribution pathways created by platforms like Google and Facebook. But the reality is that the platforms power both for distribution (search, referral traffic, etc) and monetization (grabbing up more and more of the advertising pie) had little to do with anything the news industry either collectively or as individual publications did or didn’t do. Those were being driven by the general growth of tech in the economy and the ease of national distribution made possible by the Internet itself.
One way to look at the transformation is that in the old days, big city papers and local television affiliates had de facto monopolies over commercial speech in their given geographical areas. Capital-intensive printing press, local delivery distribution system, an assist with broadcast licenses for the TV stations. So they could largely dictate prices for commercial speech (i.e., advertising) in those areas. That was a great and stable business. The Internet blew all that up. That central fact is the core change that almost everything about the contemporary news business comes back to. This created new distribution paths and de facto monopolies at the national level (i.e., the platforms) and the rest is history.
Others argue that it’s unfair to put all the blame on Google and Facebook since they “helped” news publications with referral traffic. But all this talk of ‘helping’ or ‘hurting’ moralizes the discussion. It muddles more than it clarifies. The platforms assumed dominant, quasi-monopoly power over the distribution networks for information. So that’s where distribution came from. It’s just a fact, not generosity.
This isn’t to blame one side or excuse one side. It’s simply descriptive. I don’t think there’s any point in the last 20 years that you could point to and make any kind of argument about how the news industry – collectively or individually – could have done much differently. Where you can and I do fault the industry is in not seeing the writing on the wall earlier. Scale really wasn’t workable in the way a lot of the industry thought and journalism was living off an advertising industry it had less and less control over. But again, the journalism business didn’t ‘give’ these things to the platforms and then realize it was a mistake. They were losing them no matter what they did.
If you’re a big journalism outfit you can ignore the writing on the wall a lot longer than smaller ones can. You can deceive yourself into thinking you can buck the trend when the trend is coming for you just like everyone else.