The Internet Isn’t Destroying Journalism; It’s Restructuring the News Business
It’s a familiar economic pattern: Industries tend to become more specialized and less vertically integrated over time. In the early decades of the automobile and aerospace businesses, Ford and Boeing made most of the key parts of their cars and planes. Similarly, in the 1960s and ‘70s, IBM and other major computer companies built hardware, wrote software, and provided supporting services. But eventually, market and competitive pressures restructured all three sectors into vast ecosystems of focused, global suppliers—for tires, jet engines, disk drives, and countless other components.
The Internet is bringing similar restructuring to the news industry. For decades, newspapers published many different types of news—reporting, opinions, weather forecasts, sports coverage, business and classified ads, obituaries, TV listings, event calendars, entertainment reviews, and more. But during the 21st century, specialized online services have pulled apart this highly integrated model—through ESPN, The Weather Channel, Yelp, eBay, Carvana, Zillow, Rotten Tomatoes, cable TV providers, memorial websites, search engines, content aggregators, and a vast array of news and opinion providers.
We witness the inefficiency of the traditional newspaper structure every year as hundreds, even thousands, of media representatives descend upon events such as the Superbowl, the COP climate conference, and the Davos gabfest, all covering pretty much the same thing. In contrast, Internet-only players have the scale economies that make both high efficiency and rapid innovation possible. Not surprisingly, many consumers find these mostly free offerings more appealing than relying on a single paid newspaper subscription. As eyeballs migrated to the digital world, money inevitably followed, and the newspaper industry’s wealth and power declined.
All of this is well known. But what, if anything, does the shift from vertically integrated newspapers to specialized information services tell us about the state of journalism? After all, the car, aerospace, and computing industries all became much bigger, more innovative, more efficient, and more global after they adopted a focused-supplier approach, and these changes greatly benefited consumers. The restructuring of the news business will likely do the same.
Journalism vs. Journalists
Just as we should adopt a broad definition of “news” that encompasses its many forms, we also need to decide what we mean by “journalism.” The American Press Institute defines it as: “the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It’s also the product of these activities.” Using this definition, more journalism is being produced than ever before. Reporters, researchers, subject matter experts and topic enthusiasts of all sorts are providing important news and analysis in every field, and via every means—tweets, blogs, podcasts, guest articles, journals, books, magazines, white papers, videos, newsletters, Substack postings, FAQs, fact checking, content moderation, editing, analytics, and now even generative AI. Some of this work is of the highest quality and some is poor, but taken together the volume of output dwarfs that of traditional newsrooms.
Despite this explosion of news and information, we often hear that journalism is in decline. But this is what happens when we equate journalism with journalists. For example, in 2021 Pew Research made headlines by revealing that the number of journalists had fallen 26 percent since 2008. However, Pew was only counting journalists working in newsrooms. While this is an interesting number, it’s no longer an accurate journalism activity metric. It’s mostly a measure of the rate of decline within the old newspaper-led order. It says a lot about the number of self-identified “professional” journalist employees, but little about the creation, flow, and influence of information in the wider world. Matt Taibbi no longer works for a newspaper; he writes for Substack. Odds are Tucker Carlson will also do something online and independent.
These definitional and measurement problems are further complicated by the fact that journalism isn’t a profession in the typical use of the term. When we talk about the “professions,” we are usually referring to doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, professors and others who have certifiably mastered an agreed upon body of knowledge. Electricians, plumbers, nurses, and others with certifiable skills can also fall into the professional category.
While the journalism field has its own professional schools, societies, and practices, they aren’t mandatory, and there is no required certification. Prominent figures—including Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Carl Bernstein, Seymour Hersch, Nina Totenberg, Maureen Dowd, Rachel Maddow and a great many others—don’t have degrees in journalism. Similarly, many subject matter experts and informed citizens can also do journalism, which is why we now have a lot more journalism, even as there are fewer people who see themselves purely as journalists. The lack of a clear journalist definition also explains why deciding who should be given press credentials can often seem so arbitrary.
Are You Being Served?
Given that both the financial weakness of newspapers and the declining number of journalists working in newsrooms can be misleading indicators, the best way to assess the state of journalism today is to focus on how well the public is being served. Although this is a complex and subjective topic, the overwhelming conventional wisdom is that the media and journalism are failing in this regard. Yet these complaints are almost entirely limited to investigative and hard news reporting. No one says that consumers of opinions, sports, weather forecasts, entertainment reviews, classified ads, obituaries and similar information are poorly served. When one compares Internet services to traditional newspapers, it’s important to keep this broader set of news offerings in mind.
In terms of reporting, there are two widely cited areas of concern: the declining trust in national media, and the disappearance of many local newspapers. At a national level, there is arguably too much, not too little, news. In addition to all of the major newspapers, television stations, and social media, there is C-SPAN, Politico, Slate, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Hill, The Federalist, Real Clear Politics, Breitbart, newcomers such as Substack and The Free Press and countless other offerings. This surplus of competitors requires everyone to vie for attention, which helps explain why many news outlets put so much emphasis on controversies, opinions, and gotchas, as opposed to balanced in-depth investigations and reporting. As they used to say in the newspaper business, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
As opinions and narratives rise in importance, it’s hardly surprising that news providers become more polarized and biased. Things have reached such a state that some media figures now argue that journalists should move away from traditional notions of objectivity and balance. If “my side” speaks the truth, why should we give airtime to the others? This growing one-sidedness (of both liberal and conservative outlets) inevitably leads to vast differences in what is covered, as well as less reliable information, and a loss of trust among those whose opinions and priorities differ. As we have argued, journalistic bias creates more distrust than social media, despite countless claims to the contrary.
Ironically, today’s surplus of competitors points toward a possible long-term remedy. Fewer news suppliers would make getting attention easier, and this could reduce the value of being the loudest and most opinionated voice, making it more economically feasible to appeal to a broader audience. The financial problems at many online and offline news publications—most recently at Buzzfeed—suggest that this theory might eventually be tested. But the bottom line is that at a national level, there is, if anything, still too much journalism; there’s just a shortage of the balanced in-depth coverage many people say they prefer, even if they often don’t.
Not So Deserted
The local news situation has raised even louder alarms than those heard nationally. We are increasingly warned about the dangers of “news deserts,” regions that no longer have a local newspaper. A widely cited study claimed that some 2,200 local U.S. newspapers (about a quarter of the total) ceased publication between 2005 and 2020. There are similar worries about “ghost newspapers,” which still exist but are now a shadow of their former selves. These trends and terms speak to real change; many regional and local papers are now thinner, less frequent, online only, or closed entirely.
However, as with the national situation, it’s easy to overlook the improvements. Anyone with an Internet connection can now access all the global reporting, opinions, and analyses they wish. This certainly was not the case in the pre-Internet era, and represents a massive consumer gain. Likewise, news about local sports, real estate listings, restaurants, weather, jobs, local government activities, crime, et al., is also generally available freely online, through a variety of sources. In both of these cases, the decline of local newspapers mostly affects those without online access. However, this is more of a universal service challenge than a critique of journalism; it’s also a much more solvable problem, as over time the number of people not connected to the Internet will trend toward near zero.
Those who fear for the future of local news are mostly talking about investigative and in-depth reporting at a local level. As traditional newspapers weaken, this area is clearly under pressure. There are currently four main suggested ways to close the gap:
1. Local news could be subsidized, either through tax incentives or direct public funding. Several bills along these lines have been floated in Congress, although none have passed. States, cities and towns could also launch their own subsidy initiatives if so inclined.
2. Philanthropists and sponsors could fund local news coverage in the same way that billionaires have done for national media, including Lauren Powell Jobs (The Atlantic), Jeff Bezos (The Washington Post), and John Henry (The Boston Globe). Some support here is certain to occur.
3. Lawmakers could require the major Internet platform companies to pay news outlets for linking to their stories, as Australia has done, Canada has attempted, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-CA) proposed in her failed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), and California is now considering.
4. The combination of social media platforms, community TV, and new local news players could grow to meet citizen information needs in areas such as regional developments, town planning, local elections, schools, police and fire reports, taxation, community events, and traffic control.
Items one and two are basically ways of preserving the past; they seek to protect newspapers and newsrooms as we have always known them; they are almost a form of nostalgia and will be difficult to sustain over time. The third option is simply unfair. As ITIF has argued, news publishers are under no obligation to list their content with Google News or other online platforms, and there are technical controls they could use to prevent tech companies from indexing their articles. But most publishers choose not to do this because they benefit from the traffic that the platforms generate. So basically, they are asking to be paid for something they benefit from. Moreover, why should newspapers be compensated for links to their content when no other content providers are?
The fourth option is more forward-looking and broadly sustainable over time. We have shown that people with an Internet connection don’t need a local newspaper for national and international news, nor for many day-to-day information services. They mostly need it for local news and reporting. The question is whether path number 4 can meet this need. Fortunately, the answer seems to be yes.
Everyone knows that Facebook, Twitter, and cable TV can be and are used to serve local communities. But there is also much more going on with local news initiatives than is readily visible nationally. Rather than top-down Gannett-style local and regional papers, there are now a great many bottom-up efforts—some for-profit and some not. There are more than 270 local initiatives in Massachusetts alone. Additionally, in more of a center-out model, the online news media company Axios has launched local newsletters serving more than two dozen cities across the country, with more on the way. Of course, such efforts tend to be in relatively well-off areas, but this was true for local newspapers as well. Given the growing number of citizens and groups who can create and post informed online content, the potential for active civic-mindedness and participation remains great.
Restructuring for the Future
The shift from vertically integrated companies to specialized providers has served consumers well in many important industries. Although the news business is still in the middle of this restructuring, the pattern seems likely to hold once again. We often hear that the decline of traditional newspapers is a “threat to democracy,” but what’s really happening is that the news business is being democratized, resulting in more information, more voices, and more choices, with all of the benefits, challenges, and complexities that diversity creates. The claim that the Internet is reducing the quality and quantity of journalism and societal information will be increasingly proven false.
About This Series
ITIF’s “Defending Digital” series examines popular criticisms, complaints, and policy indictments against the tech industry to assess their validity, correct factual errors, and debunk outright myths. Our goal in this series is not to defend tech reflexively or categorically, but to scrutinize widely echoed claims that are driving the most consequential debates in tech policy. Before enacting new laws and regulations, it’s important to ask: Do these claims hold water?
About the Author
David Moschella is a non-resident senior fellow at ITIF. Previously, he was head of research at the Leading Edge Forum, where he explored the global impact of digital technologies, with a particular focus on disruptive business models, industry restructuring and machine intelligence. Before that, David was the worldwide research director for IDC, the largest market analysis firm in the information technology industry. His books include Seeing Digital—A Visual Guide to the Industries, Organizations, and Careers of the 2020s (DXC, 2018), Customer-Driven IT (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), and Waves of Power (Amacom, 1997).
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress. For more information, visit us at www.itif.org.
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