Trying to predict the future of the Internet or even see how it will become a trusted source of facts, like old-fashioned newspapers and television reports, is in my view the equivalent of standing on the sand spit in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and predict the future of aviation.
As the effect of the internet has evolved, publishers of yore wanted it. I was one of those. While I told the Newsletter Publishers Association a long time ago that putting a printed article on a thread wasn’t enough, that they should develop products for this new medium.
Some got up early and caught the worm while newsletter publishers like me slept, notably The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Economist. They have embraced and adapted their offerings for the internet.
They are all publications that have traditionally had a preponderance of readers interested in topics that go beyond local news. The Wall Street Journal has always had a business audience and has adapted quickly.
People are also reading…
The New York Times has been able to tap into its global and national followings and convert them to online reading. The Economist had an obvious business and world affairs audience to tap into.
The Washington Post’s adoption of the Internet has been more dynamic.
When the Graham family sold The Post to the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, many of us believed it would be another rich man who would buy a newspaper to keep it going and capture the social opportunities that come with the franchise. But Bezos saw the future and poured money into the Post, not to keep it alive but to massively expand it into the cyber world. He was right and pulled off an editorial coup.
What hasn’t been seen by anyone I knew in the publishing world and isn’t in the literature is that no one understood how the Internet was going to suck up almost all of the advertising dollars.
Pure internet companies, marginally in publishing, have sucked in advertising, creating great wealth for their owners.
Even though they didn’t have a background in publishing and didn’t even think of themselves as publishers, they added news stories—often generated by legitimate news organizations—as a freebie, which they didn’t pay; if you write for a newspaper or magazine, you have been ripped off by an internet publisher.
The irony is that in the 1980s and 1990s, newspaper and television properties were highly prized and sold for undreamt-of multiples. It was around the time Al Neuharth was building the Gannett chain and launching USA Today. I knew Neuharth, himself a journalist through and through.
Now that empire has been sold, and many of its once-proud local titles are closed or look more like pamphlets than newspapers. The advertising, and with it the revenue, went to the giants of the Internet.
But they are not newspapers and their owners are not publishers. They are aggregators and, thanks to the wonder of the Internet, have a global presence and reach beyond the wildest dreams of Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black and the Sulzberger dynasty.
I pay tribute to those publications who are battling the internet by creating daily editions online and keeping the craft of yore alive.
These include The New Yorker and The Spectator, a British magazine trying to gain an American presence.
On a recent visit to Edinburgh, my wife and I went into a newsagents, the traditional British shop selling newspapers, magazines and sundries, to buy some papers. Hanging above the entrance to the shop was a large blue sign advertising The Scotsman. The owner told my wife that he no longer sold newspapers and no one needed to read them.
If you know there’s a war going on in Ukraine, it’s because the mainstream media told you so, because brave journalists are there on the spot, not online. Repeat this phrase for Iran, China, Mexico not to mention Washington, Toronto, London, Rome, Moscow and Beijing.
We need old media, often called mainstream media. We have earned that nickname. The Hill, Axios and Politico show where journalism could be headed nationally. But who will cover the state, the school board and the courts? In the dark, all those institutions wander.
In a courthouse in Prince William County, Virginia, I inquired about press coverage. The woman showing me around sighed and said, “We had the reporters, they even had their own table, but not anymore.”
Lady Justice had closed one eye.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.