Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.
This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.
Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.
This discussion would be incomplete without crediting the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, and the home team at Reuters for chasing news that can’t be directly monetized. A semblance of the traditional news bundle survives at these places for legacy reasons and because the Web hasn’t usurped their positions in the journalistic order. The day may come, however, that falling revenues force them to redefine their editorial missions, too. That day may close on USA Today, a frequent purveyor of noncommercial news, sooner than later.
Were harder forms of news ever commercial? Gerald J. Baldasty’s book, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, makes a case clear as spring water that hard news has almost never been a mass commercial enterprise. The American newspapers of the 1820s and early 1830s were creatures of political parties, edited by zealots. Essentially propaganda sheets, these newspapers were “devoted to winning elections,” as Baldasty wrote well before (1992) the Web invasion. Without newspapers, top political organizer Martin Van Buren once said, “we might as well hang our harps on willows.”