How Economics Drives News Media
By Arnold Kling
- The membership payers do not pay to get news for themselves (they already know the news).
- … They require newsrooms to operate with values, not news. This slowly forces journalism to mutate into crowdfunded propaganda—postjournalism.
- … Classical journalism pretended to be objective; it strived to depict the world-as-it-is. Postjournalism is openly normative; it imposes the world-as-it-should-be.
- —Andrey Mir, Postjournalism1. P. 7 and p. 264.
Andrey Mir’s Postjournalism offers a powerful, sweeping narrative of how news media have evolved over the centuries. Mir’s framework is that media technology determines how journalism is supported financially, and those who finance news media in turn shape its contents.
In the 21st century, the newspaper industry has lost advertising revenue to Internet companies from Craigslist to Google. The pandemic cut newspaper advertising even further.
A few newspapers have salvaged themselves by generating paid online subscriptions. Mir argues that this has changed how media portray our lives. “The media relying on ad revenue makes the world look pleasant. The media relying on reader revenue makes the world look grim.” (8) Advertisers want to reach an audience that is relatively at peace. Hence, the age of advertising-supported media was one which did not stoke controversy and anger.
But relatively placid stories do not motivate people to pay subscription fees. Today, people can get news for free. They can get sports scores, financial information, and entertainment without going to newspapers. Mir argues that nowadays people pay newspapers to validate their worldviews. Newspapers do this most effectively by highlighting stories about the outrageous actions of their subscribers’ political adversaries.
Mir sees the contemporary online subscription as in large part a donation. The subscriber is supporting a cause. Mir calls this “donscription,” short for donation/subscription.
Subscribing to a preferred media source is like supporting your favorite sports team or the college from which you graduated. Donscribers are not really interested in acquiring information. They want to raise the status of their preferred narrative. “Asking for subscription as donation causes the media to politicize, radicalize and polarize agendas, contributing to general discord in society.” (13)
In fact, hardly any newspapers have been able to execute the donscription model successfully. Mir compares the print circulation of newspapers in 2002 with their digital subscriptions in 2019. By this measure, the Washington Post and the New York Times have more than doubled their readership. But others, such as the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, saw their audience plummet by more than 80 percent.
Mir sees Donald Trump’s presence on the political stage as a major factor accelerating the trend toward postjournalism. Before 2015, the mainstream media tried to maintain the practices of objective journalism that had been built up during the advertising-supported era. Over the subsequent five years, they migrated toward activism and exaggeration, fanning the allegations of Mr. Trump’s collusion with Russia for example. With Mr. Trump’s defeat, Mir predicts a significant decline in paid subscriptions.
Mir argues that what we think of as “traditional” objective journalism is not the historical norm. Prior to the late 19th century, print media were very expensive. Newspapers were paid for by elites and catered to those elites.
Over the course of the 1800’s, a number of inventions dramatically reduced the cost of printing. Along with rising literacy rates, this transformed the newspaper industry.
Since then, their commercial and political impact has rested not on the access of the literates, but on their affordability to the masses. Different funding models became possible: political sponsorship, news retail, advertising sales and different combinations of them. (51)
High fixed cost and low marginal cost made for mass media, with limited competition and relatively secure profits. Newspapers entertained the masses with comics and sports scores. Television entertained them with soap operas and sitcoms. Bundled in with this entertainment was objective news reporting, which served the interests of advertisers by not alienating any particular political viewpoint.
- News itself is a very paradoxical commodity. It always ‘needs’ to be read; it is always in some kind of demand from below. But there is always someone from above who wants to pay for certain news to be delivered to the public. And those from above—those in power or advertisers—want to pay to deliver the right news much more than those from below, who are willing and able to pay to receive the news. (55)
In other words, “news content will always be paid… by those who want to deliver it and not by those who want to receive.” (137)
In short, those who provide the financial backing for news media will shape what is presented to the public. As mass-market advertising falls away from newspapers, and they turn to online subscriptions, the relatively bland news preferred by advertisers gives way to the angry, partisan outlook preferred by donscribers.
The availability of news on web sites and social media accentuates the trend away from objectivity in newspapers. Straight reporting by traditional news outlets adds relatively little to what people already know. “In the 2010s, with the widespread internet and social media, journalism tends to be opinion-leaning. Reporting has surrendered to commenting” (100).
Mir makes the interesting argument that free speech is under fire because access to media has become democratized. Before the Internet, speech was effectively filtered by the cost of obtaining the ability to use mass media. But now
- Freedom of speech has become technically guaranteed to everyone and as a result has lost its universal paramount value; moreover, the overproduction of free speech resulted in the necessity for society to find other filtering mechanisms…. From being technically (power-) conditioned, free speech, because of overproduction, is becoming socially (morally) conditioned. (280)
Start with the assumption that most are actually frightened by free speech. We have the luxury of championing free speech as long as those who offend us have little access to a wide audience. But once the megaphone becomes available to anyone, we realize that we want to restrict the content of what other people say.
Indeed, Mir argues that many of our liberal enlightenment values are products of a media era that began half a millennium ago and may now be ending. “The newspaper or journal article was the last text of modernity, the last text of the literate era, the last text of the Gutenberg Galaxy and, in fact, simply the last text.” (361)
How can we defend liberalism against postjournalism in particular and the post-modern influence of contemporary media in general?
- The digital reality is becoming a natural environment for people resettling there. There is no need to teach anyone how to use social media or the internet, just as there is no need to teach people how to breathe. These skills come naturally. Media education must focus on withstanding the power of natural forces. Techniques for control of the digital body should teach users how not to breathe.(374)
Given the importance of media education, I cannot recommend Postjournalism highly enough. Mir’s treatise is one that you should read and re-read.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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