The return to Yellow Journalism

On the plus side, the disappearance of free mainstream journalism means we won’t have to put up with the pretense of objectivity anymore. Megan McArdle explains why the Washington Post cannot exist without Jeff Bezos keeping it afloat.

Critics of the “mainstream media” (or if you prefer, the “lamestream media”) are fond of saying that we’re going to be put out of business by competition from “new media” upstarts. Indeed, as a young blogger, I might even have made a few such pronouncements. And I and those critics were wrong. Traditional media can survive competition for readers just fine. It’s competition for advertisers that’s killing us.

For more than a century, magazines and newspapers were what’s known as a “two-sided market”: We sold subscriptions to you, our readers, and once you’d subscribed, we sold your eyeballs to our advertisers. That was necessary because, unbeknownst to you, your subscription dollars often didn’t even cover the cost of printing and delivering the physical pieces of paper. They rarely covered much, if any, of the cost of actually reporting and writing the stories printed on those pages. And you’d probably be astonished at how expensive it is to report a single, relatively simple story.

But that was okay, because we controlled a valuable pipeline to reader eyeballs — a pipeline advertisers wanted to fill with information about their products. You guys got your journalism on the cheap, and advertisers got the opportunity to tell you about the fantastic incentive package available to qualified buyers on the brand-new 1985 Chevy Impala.

Then the Internet came along, and suddenly, we didn’t own the only pipeline anymore. Anyone can throw up a Web page. And over the past 20 years, anyone did — far more than could support actual advertiser demand.

The companies that won this rugby scrum weren’t the venerable old names with long experience marrying ads to winsome content. They weren’t even the new media companies with their frantic brigades of young staffers generating hot takes. The companies that are winning — mostly Google and Facebook — get content for free from their users, or other people on the Internet. Including us.

Providing the rope with which someone else will hang you is obviously not a very good business model. And in the words of economist Herb Stein, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Either we will find someone else to pay for the news and opinion and cartoons you consume, or we will go out of business.

When content is king, tedious, inaccurate, and watered-down content isn’t going to survive long, no matter how necessary and important its creators believe it to be. And considering what the consequences of advertiser-supported mainstream media have been, the sooner it dies off, the better.