The great rollback

Derek Thompson in The Atlantic has a piece up, How to Survive the Media Apocalypse, which gets at something I’ve come to believe:

Advertising has been critical to the affordable distribution of news for a century and a half in the U.S. Today’s media companies don’t have to reach all the way back to the early 1800s for a business plan, to when newspapers were an elite product, selling at the prohibitive price of six pennies per bundle. But they are going back in time, in a way, and excavating a dusty business model that relies more on readers, and less on advertisers, than the typical online publisher….

There are two groups of people who as readers truly value the truth in anything but the workaday (e.g., weather, traffic reports, etc.): nerds and those with money on the line.

The idea that news is about giving people the Truth is a conceit that was never attainable, but the American media had aspirations. Really most people want to be entertained, amused and vindicated. Conservatives complaining about the perceived Leftward drift of The New York Times who cancel their subscriptions are accelerating an inevitable process (as the readership gets more and more liberal). The fat profits generated by both advertising, in particular classifieds, and subscriptions, allowed the 20th-century media to not be beholden to one master. This is a new world, though a generation that grew up in the old world has not internalized the now.

Outfits which are geared toward the wealthy or business, such as Bloomberg, will retain a more straightforward positivist orientation. Facts will basically be a luxury consumption good, as well an input necessary for greater productivity on the margins for efficient allocation of capital. Those journals with mass audiences will fragment and develop sharper viewpoints and pay less attention to facts if they impede sensationalism and audience preferences. Basically, we’re going to become Britain!

Thompson’s reference back to the early 1800s made me think of Carl Friedrich Gauss. Like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Gauss did not have absolute leisure to pursue intellectual activities. At some point, he was employed as a surveyor in Hanover. To the modern mind, this was a terrible waste of incredible talent. It is for this sort of reason that institutions of higher education with some independence arose to give scholars leisure and freedom to pursue their interests.

But will it always be so? The science fiction genre of steampunk obtains its novelty from injecting advanced technology into a Victorian world on its own terms. Perhaps in a few decades, many of our social and cultural arrangements will seem very quaint and antiquated to those of us who came into maturity in the fin de siècle of the 20th century, with all culture was mass culture.

5 thoughts on “The great rollback

  1. That and the arts in general is something that concerns me. With everyone using kodi, adblock, spotify and not having a lot of disposable income it seems like this will have a detrimental effect on our culture in general. People expect everything to be free and they also have bad taste so they couldn’t care less if every movie was Avengers and all their news came from Fox News. Why pay for Taylor Swift’s music? It’s bad and she’s already rich anyway.
    It is also a time of transition for music, film/TV and news though and I’ve heard a couple of encouraging things about subscription rates and people starting music production companies that give more money to the artists so maybe it’ll take time to work it out.
    I guess I’ll be happy if people will at least pay for *something* even if it is commercial or mainstream because companies can use that money to fund the arthouse and more obscure stuff.

  2. “Gauss did not have absolute leisure to pursue intellectual activities. At some point, he was employed as a surveyor in Hanover. To the modern mind, this was a terrible waste of incredible talent. It is for this sort of reason that institutions of higher education with some independence arose to give scholars leisure and freedom to pursue their interests.”

    Yes, and in 1905, Einstein was making ends meet by being a clerk in the patent office.

    Are we really better off?

  3. Before the Internet tsunami submerged newspapers, subscriptions were loss leaders, not sources of profit. The typical mix was revenue: 80% advertising, 20% subscriptions; costs: 60% business side (production, circulation, ad sales), 40% editorial (that is, journalism). Alt-weeklies did just fine financially giving away the product.

    The business model for newspapers was not selling news to readers – it was selling readers’ eyeballs to advertisers.

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