The last few days have seen a flurry of purchases of ailing print journalism flagships. The Boston Globe was sold. Newsweek changed hands again. And, most spectacular of all, the Washington Post was bought for chump change. Meanwhile, the Tribune group — publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune – is readying itself for sale.
There is nothing new about rich men buying newspapers. The surest way to enhance personal prestige is to become a press magnate. As Rupert Murdoch’s second wife Anna replied when asked how she was enjoying Beverly Hills, “It’s not the same if you don’t own the paper.” But something more interesting is going on than social climbing. New technology billionaires are picking up old money properties for a song. Online is moving in on hard copy. This is not evolution, it is a revolution.
The history of the press from its inception, when Bi Sheng invented moving type in 1041, to the proliferation of online publications today, has been a succession of tidal waves as typeset printing and rival media technologies have battled it out. Despite the contention that capitalism thrives on competition, in practice the market tends towards monopoly.
In the second half of the twentieth century, press lords found it easier to buy rival papers and merge them with their own than compete with smarter reporting and more dramatic pictures. By the turn of the twenty-first century, many American cities were left with one upmarket broadsheet and one downmarket tabloid, often owned by the same person. For 50 years until the Internet hit, press barons got rich by cornering the market in supply and milking their advertising monopoly.
Monopolism was bad for business and worse for journalism. Like all monopolies, from Amtrak to the Post Office, monopolist papers turn in on themselves and take their readers for granted. For instance, the New York Times Company’s domination of the eastern seaboard, bolstered by the Globe in Boston and TV stations, ill served its customers by squeezing out competition and encouraged the company’s managers to rest on their laurels. Unaccountable to market forces, their journalists combine into an unassailable, inaccessible priesthood, responsible to no one. Their concomitant complacency has contributed to the widespread hatred for the self-serving habits of what those who feel shut out call “the mainstream media.”