The outlook for news organizations in the United States is more promising than it has been for years. But the future is bleaker than it has been for years, too. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—home to some of the most venerable news outlets in the United States, with newspapers there having won 2 Pulitzer Prizes in the past three years—owners are threatening to liquidate the papers unless workers unions agree to massive cost reductions. The “New York Times”, long touted as the most august and financially secure newspaper in the United States, is in the midst of what “New York Magazine” writer Joe Hagan calls a “major shakeout.” But at the same time, writer Andrew Sullivan has announced his plan to take his pioneering blog independent, solely relying on reader support for funding and renouncing online advertising. And in a truly surprising move, the Orange County Register of California is doubling-down on print, largely bypassing the web in order to try to make their newspaper product a “must have.”
It is, to deploy a terrible cliché, really the best of times and the worst of times. How is this possible? To understand 21st century journalism in the United States, it is necessary to understand this paradox: news is simultaneously dying and being reborn. We don’t know yet what economic models of journalistic production will emerge from the rubble of the industrial news age. What is certain, though, is that changing business models will change more than simply the ways news organizations make money. They will change the relationship between journalism and the political process. They will even change the public understanding of what journalism is, and who, in the words of press theorist Jay Rosen, journalism is for.
What do I mean by the argument that changing business models change the profession? My argument here is less about newspaper economics than it is about journalistic culture. Over the past six years, journalism executives in the United States have become so obsessed with finding a “business model” that will stop their industry from sliding into oblivion that they have barely stopped to consider how adopting different economic models will affect journalists’ vision of themselves and their profession. But we need to do more than simply find a model for journalism that works. We need to ask ourselves: works for whom? And to what end?
There has always been a link between journalistic business model and journalism’s self-understanding. Take the dominant model in the U.S. for the past hundred years: private advertising buttressed on the notion of selling a “mass readership” to advertisers. For most of the 20th century, journalists mistook this mass circulation strategy for a normative model of how public life works. In other words, it was in the interest of monopoly news organizations to have as wide a circulation as possible, but these news providers also substituted this mass circulation strategy for second belief: the belief that they spoke to “the public,” which was a single, unified entity capable of political action.
This model, and this conflation of “mass circulation” with “the public,” is being replaced by new business strategies and new professional understandings. What does this mean? Let’s take two of the most promising recent ideas for how to fund news in the 21st century. The first is widely known as a “paywall” strategy, though it might be more accurate to call it the “subscriber support” strategy. Under this model of journalism, news access is entirely or partially restricted to those who pay a regular fee. But the idea of the public changes here, too: it is now a particular community or interest group, rather than a mass populace. This understanding of the news consumer, in short, inevitably changes journalism’s ideas of what it is and whom it is for.
A second emerging business model for supporting journalism might be called the “social advertising” strategy . Popularized by U.S. websites like Buzzfeed, this social advertising strategy sees the future of news as inherently about sharing and “going viral. While one might assume that such a strategy would lead to an endless proliferation of lowbrow entertainment (and it does), the editors of Buzzfeed also believe that political news— news inherently seen as the journalistic equivalent of eating your spinach- can be crafted in order to go viral as well.
For the purposes of this piece, the wisdom of this strategy is less important than is the basic point that such a way of thinking about the audience for journalism reflects a radically different understanding of “the public” than the paywall model does. What is more, the “mass circulation” advertising strategy survives under this model of journalism, but in a new way. Rather than seeking to create subscription-oriented niches, as is done under the paywall model, Buzzfeed and sites like it are betting on the mass sharing of news content as a way to drive revenues.
In short: journalism, in the United States and indeed in much of the Western world, is in the midst of a remarkable transformation. While we can’t be sure what business models will succeed and which ones will fail in this new era, there is one thing we can be sure of. Changing business models impact more than simply journalism’s strategies for making money. They ultimately change what journalism is, and indeed, the mechanisms by which politics are practiced in the 21st century.