What if civic news has always been a niche market and we just didn’t recognize that? Mixed up with the sports readers and food page readers and folks who just wanted to see what was on TV, the people who bought and read the newspaper mainly for civic news probably were no more than a fraction of the total “news audience” all along.
This is at odds with my sense that most people are inherently social creatures — that we’re motivated by civic urges, want to participate, like being part of a community bigger than ourselves. I often argued that the most important thing newspapers did as mass media was to “provide the vocabulary for civic conversations.” Even people who read the paper mainly for sports (or whatever) presumably glanced at the front page, saw some headlines, got sucked in to some level of awareness of the civic life around them. Maybe that little bit was enough.
But maybe that limited, serendipitous exposure never really mattered; perhaps we simply flattered ourselves that it did. Maybe only a small percentage of citizens ever thought about issues and made reasoned decisions; perhaps they were then and now remain the only ones who need sophisticated, nuanced civic news.
It’s pretty clear now the overall business model that enriched newspapers over most of the last 40 years was largely accidental. Newspaper publishers never had a strategic plan to have television eliminate half their rivals, leaving them with non-competitive pricing power. I doubt any ever realized their audience-building packaging decisions — news, sports, business, features, comics — were mainly artifacts of production and distribution realities. We delivered all that content in one newspaper package because that was at the time state-of-the-art: the best, most cost-effective way to distribute on a daily basis. There was no natural order involved.
Media success is still driven by distribution prowess and uneconomic, accidental circumstances, but those no longer work in favor of newspapers. Google is today’s dominant example.
No less than the organizations that ruled the infosphere in prior decades, Google’s success owes much to fortune and circumstance. The founders never set out to create an Adwords and Adsense behemoth. There’s no evidence they associated their indexing and searching with advertising, or that they initially contemplated the network effects that would one day give them near monopoly power of their own.
In fact, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were opposed to "advertising funded search engines," they wrote in early days, and they didn’t come up with the idea of search-driven ad sales or the mechanisms to power it. Those were developed elsewhere, and Google became good at it only after settling a court case and licensing Omniture technology from Yahoo.
It’s important to understand this not because it diminishes their accomplishments – they had many brilliant insights and have executed splendidly – but because it adds a different perspective to all those admonitions to “do what Google would do.”
Newspapers were protected against competition by barriers like the expense of presses and costs of delivery. Google’s supremacy grows form the fact that it makes so much money on its brilliant, friction-free advertising it can give away billions of dollars worth of services — YouTube, Maps, Gmail — to create and protect a self-serving ecosystem that keeps Google at the center. Meanwhile, its search pages and algorithmic Google News aggregation have become a crucial source of news distribution that gain strength every day.
Net result? Google now combines the equivalent of yesterday’s newspaper monopolies with control of today’s state-of-the-art distribution system.
There are still ways for a Rebel Alliance to fight global information hegemony, but challenging Google at its core — online advertising and online traffic — doesn’t seem like a good bet.