In his watershed 1964 work “Understanding Media,” Marshall Macluhan posed a thought experiment. If a new media were established which offered buyers and sellers a free venue for trade, classified advertising in newspapers would collapse. This collapse would eliminate the fifth estate, thus threatening the existence of democracy itself. The advent of “new media” such as ebay and craigslist have now apparently made this thought experiment a reality.
The age of alternative weeklies coincided with the birth of the internet, but with the advent of the so-called “web 2.0” and the ascent of Facebook and Google, print publications of all sorts took a financial hit. Advertisers flocked to the new media and as a consequence, many publications saw a decline in ad revenue. Printing and distribution costs continued to increase while classified advertisers moved to the internet. The mix of advertisers that news organizations depended on to make tight budgets, namely smaller local businesses and larger national campaigns started to evaporate, forcing staff cuts. Local investigative reporting was replaced with cheaper opinion pieces, soon even nominal guest writer fees disappeared. Local alternative journalism simply did not survive the jump to the so-called “gig economy.”
What was euphemistically called the “chinese wall” between news reporting and paid advertising content started to disappear completely in many instances. Various not-for-profit entities crept into the void, but the thousand points of light envisioned by the late George Bush are themselves constricted by the interests of their often times corporate donors. And now a message from our sponsors….The struggle to remain in print made it difficult to maintain a compelling website. As local publications threw in the towel to concentrate on the web, they found that ad revenue there was even harder to come by. The web 2.0 giants Google and Facebook now enjoy a defacto monopoly share of all internet ad revenue in the US. Furthermore the internet has become a vast ocean,
making local news websites evaporate from consciousness, like so many droplets of water.
The slow decline of print journalism mirrors the rise of the internet. Most people in the U.S. now get their news from Facebook. Facebook is not a news organization. It does not fund investigative journalism. Traditional newspapers have sought to stem their losses by putting their copy on the internet behind a paywall. Meanwhile, local newspapers have suffered greatly. They have filled the void of local stories with syndicated national news, and have geared their news product towards what is popular with readers. Their readers are now more of a target market for their advertisers, than a community of participants in a democracy.
Prior to the rise of the internet, free, local alternative weekly newspapers flourished as local daily newspapers consolidated into monopoly dailies. Now all news print publications are being confronted with the loss of advertising revenue. This loss of revenue is not just due to the reduction of classifieds, Google has ushered in a whole new era of internet advertising. Ken Auletta’s 2010 book, “Googled: the end of the world as we know it,” explored this new landscape. Subsequent events have done little to assuage the grave concerns presented in that analysis.
News organizations have yet to find a more effective way to navigate this new landscape than paywalls. Perhaps this is due to the assumption that consumers will prefer to access news sites via a desktop computer. The smart phone era has created a new paradigm. Young people, especially, look to the cell phone as the organizing talisman of their lives. This is consistent with McLuhan’s thesis that the fracturing of “old media,”tends to favor a “new” tribalism.
If we accept McLuhan’s definition of all media as “...extensions of man,” the somewhat frightening increased dependence on smartphone technology can be understood as an historical cycle. At the pinnacle of the commanding heights of the global economy, the new media giants look down on a potpourri of balkanized special interests or “tribes” that are utterly dependent on them even for such mundane tasks as keeping phone numbers, calendar appointments, etc. In the case of Facebook their customers are their actual product. The resistance of any member tribe to this system is actually profitable for them.
In this respect the new media is much like the old in their stubborn dedication to false equivalencies. They condone hate speech in the name of furthering “bipartisan discussion.” They present “two sides of a coin” without any critical analysis.
In his new book released in June, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” tech pioneer, Jaron Lanier is urging people to start opting out. A New York Times review of the book highlights the complexities behind the simplistic idea of breaking way:“Many of his criticisms of social media will feel familiar to distant observers of American politics. Twitter and Facebook have made us cruder, less empathetic, more tribal. Only at the very end does Lanier venture into new territory. His argument, however, is a profound one. He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.”
The question becomes whether the current McLuhan-esque tribalism will continue to be exploited to produce further human misery or rather lead us into a process of reunification guided “...by the better angels of our nature,” as President Lincoln said in his first inaugural address.