Newspapers are feeling under the gun. People don’t want to pay for what they’re selling. The sweet aroma of paper and ink, the bang and clatter of hundreds of typewriters that evaporated in the clouds of tobacco smoke that once made newsrooms dark and mysterious cave-like places, the thunder of rows of printing presses, must give way to timid tapping on plastic keyboards. The newspaper game is up.
The worse news is that readers don’t want to pay for the online digital substitute, either.
“Swiftly accelerating mobile internet and smartphones have revolutionized the delivery of news and destroyed the business model of many news organizations over the past 20 years,” concludes a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “leading to falling revenue, layoffs and takeovers.”
In its annual Digital News Report, the institute found that most people would not pay for online news, and the percentage of the declining number who would has increased only slowly over the past six years.
Indeed, the smarter newspaper publishers concluded long ago that newspapers made a mortal mistake by making their news reports free in the dawn of the digital age, thinking free samples would swell circulation numbers and show prospective subscribers what they would miss if they didn’t pay up.
Hard-headed businessmen and business women, ranging from corner grocers to automobile mechanics to bordello madams, could have told them that you can’t make a profit on your product by giving it away. The mass migration of advertising to technology giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, the Institute says, has hammered revenues while more than half of the world’s population now has access to news via an Internet connection.
“Much of the population is perfectly happy with the news they can access for free,” says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute, “even amongst those who are willing to pay are willing to sign up for only one subscription. A lot of the public is really alienated from a lot of the journalism they see. They don’t find it particularly trustworthy, they don’t find it particularly relevant and they don’t find it leaves them in a better place.”
It’s not just Donald Trump who sees a lot what he reads as fake news. The golden age of paper and ink may be beyond the ability of publishers to summon it back to our times, and rebuilding trust by telling it like it is, is something a lot of publishers — and their editors — are not eager to do.
A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times which was once the gold standard for “all the news that’s fit to print,” insists that it’s all Mr. Trump’s fault. Or most of it. “First it was ‘the failing New York Times,’” he put in writing the other day. “Then it was ‘fake news.’ Then ‘enemy of the people.’ President Trump’s escalating attacks on The New York Times have paralleled his broader barrage on American media. He’s gone from misrepresenting our business, our integrity, to demonizing our journalists with a phrase that’s been used by generations of demagogues.”
The Donald has in fact been known to go over the top with criticism of his critics, including newspapermen. He accused The New York Times the other day of “a virtual act of treason” after the newspaper published an account of U.S. cyber incursions into the Russian electrical grid. This might have been unwise, inappropriate or other mild descriptions of reckless behavior. Mr. Sulzberger could have revealed his distaste for the president (which would have surprised nobody) without revealing the Trump government’s strategy.
It’s true, as Mr. Sulzberger says, that treason is a crime so grave that it is prohibited in the Constitution, and it is indeed punishable by death. But Mr. Sulzberger is in no danger of climbing to the gallows (and if he is ever threatened by a hangman’s rope I will contribute to his defense fund).
Mr. Sulzberger’s readers can decide whether his newspaper is fair, as he says it is, but as newspaper feuds with presidents go, The New York Times vs. Donald Trump is the stuff of slugging it out with cream puffs. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were accused of many indelicate things. Newspaper editors in dozens of towns and cities across the land have prudently put a pistol in their pockets on the way to church.
A newspaper, which buys ink by the barrel, is big enough to stand up even to a president, and complaints about “the pain and awfulness of it all” will always echo as a whine. Newspapers have their problems, and none of them will be resolved by pitiful cries for mercy. Trust is what needs fixing.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Washington Times.