It breaks my heart to see Minneapolis CityPages, The East Bay Express, The Bay Monthly and dozens of other alternative newspapers and magazines around the country go out of business. It has resulted in hundreds, perhaps thousands of unemployed freelance writers, editors, cartoonists, artists and journalists. Many factors led to this moment but, more than anything, I blame the big social media companies and all the old-school journalistic trade groups who failed to take decisive action against these behemoths on behalf of their members. I’m thinking of groups like the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, Universal Press Syndicate, United Features, the Associated Press, as well as many of the newspapers and magazines themselves.
The first blow against newspapers and magazines was Craigslist which, in just a few years, wiped out millions if not billions of dollars in classified advertising revenue. Most newspapers had massive classified advertising sections that helped pay for the news they reported. Given that Craigslist is more or less non-profit and represents a basic human desire for trade and connectivity, I can accept this, but it was still a big blow. Then came the move of pornography and sex ads to being 100% online. Again, this was a major source of advertising revenue for alternative weekly papers and the alternative press that has all but disappeared.
Google Ads wiped out the large amounts of money advertisers were willing to pay for quarter, half, and full-page ads in print publications. This was because online advertising results were infinitely more quantifiable than print media. Again, it was a natural evolution but many people don’t appreciate the degree to which Google is just a giant advertising agency that has now monopolized the online advertising market, and many people don’t appreciate the impact this has had on journalism.
Each of the aforementioned technological developments wiped out a certain number of old media platforms– the Village Voice, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and hundreds of others gradually went out of business. All that was left for the alternative press was restaurant, bar, and event advertising. In one fell swoop, COVID-19 wiped all that out, nation-wide.
Meanwhile, social media sites evolved to become large customizable, personalized, online magazines that delivered news, art, video, and music content to consumers for free. Plus they monopolized what remained of online ad dollars, and, most importantly, they didn’t pay a dime for content. Users just uploaded their own content, copyright be damned. Imagine running the New York Times or a major newspaper or magazine if you got all your news, columns, art and reviews for free and didn’t have to hire columnists, reporters, artists, cartoonists or reviewers! Imagine that you didn’t even have to hire editors because your readers edited the free content themselves. With almost no payroll, your publication would become an automated vending machine that generated ad revenue for you, perhaps even MORE revenue during this pandemic because everyone is stuck at home staring at their screens. This is how Mark Zuckerberg, Jan Koum, and others have become the richest people on the planet. Old-school journalism that has to pay content creators and editors can’t compete with this. I see my own work along with other cartoonists, photographers, writers, and videographers being shared thousands of times on social media platforms of which we aren’t even members, all of it used to sell ad revenue.
News organizations and journalistic trade groups became myopically obsessed with driving traffic from these social media platforms to their own news websites. In the process, the old news organizations failed to realize that their role had gradually shifted from being news delivery platforms to essentially being freelance content providers on larger social media sites, just like their employees. Now, these social media sites don’t care about them and don’t need them to make a profit. The old journalistic syndicates and trade groups could have sued social media platforms for copyright infringement early on or charged them for content, similar to how the recording industry sued Napster. The recording industry worked out deals with sharing and streaming services so their musicians got at least minimal payment for their work, and they forced YouTube to develop song detection software that can identify a song used in someone’s video and either send the creator a small fraction of the video’s associated ad revenue or automatically send a cease and desist letter and take the video down (or just strip it of its soundtrack). The software is so good that it can detect an obscure San Francisco Bay Area instrumental surf band (the Mermen) or a particular ensemble’s performance of a classical music piece that is attached to a video about bike lanes or something completely unrelated to the music.
Similar software could be created for social media websites to force the sites to pay some small royalty to content creators and journalists based on how often their work gets shared or viewed. It’s a much simpler programming problem than identifying sound and music. But it would to take massive lawsuits to make it happen and it would require entire law firms and millions of dollars to take on the life blood of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram and others. As they weaken and go extinct, the old journalistic trade groups are losing the ability to even consider launching such lawsuits, even though this is the one thing that might save them.
Meanwhile, in the old-world book realm, publishing houses have failed to appreciate the implications of Google Books– that, soon, Google will have spent decades scanning and uploading the world’s books onto a searchable database so complete and so massive that it will be unequaled. They will effectively have a world-wide monopoly on digital books that no other organization can hope to compete with. At that point, book publishers will be in a similar position as newspapers and periodicals are today. It will be similar to West Publishing’s strangle-hold on court reporters where every lawyer or law firm in the country has to pay usurious fees to Westlaw for the ability to search court and legislative records.
I was a tiny barnacle who was attached to the whale of the journalism and publishing industry for 30 years. I had a nice, albeit mediocre run. At least I’m not in debt or mired in bankruptcies like the publishers of some of these alternative news publications. Old journalism had its faults, many faults, but it also did a lot of work to keep big private and government powers accountable. When any conspiracy theorist can run a blog (often funded by dark corporate or political interests), and get millions of viewers to believe COVID is a hoax or other absurdities, I think we’re all going to miss the old journalism world. I hope I’m wrong.