Commitment issues and self-sabotage of the news business

Let's face it: the advertising business model of American newspapers is shot to hell. There are several reasons:

  • Local commerce has withered into near-irrelevancy as big-box retailers and other giants have displaced local businesses and local decisionmaking.
  • Demand for advertising is relatively static and competitive supply has exploded. Ad networks have made it possible for national and local advertisers to buy into an essentially infinite world of advertising inventory on sites that do nothing for the local community. CPMs have been driven into the ground.
  • Profiling and ad targeting technology is controlled by tech giants, not publishers.

This didn't happen overnight, and there has been plenty of time for news publishers to realize the full extent of the problem.

So news publishers have decided to chase consumer revenue -- subscriptions.

But they're not committed. Not really serious.

Just look at any newspaper-based website, or look inside any newspaper-based organization. What are the priorities?

The big number is still this month's ad revenue, and nothing else really counts.

So instead of crafting a consumer experience designed to attract and keep reader customers of value, their websites are all crapped up with layer after layer of advertising, popups, auto-playing videos, fake content from advertisers, trash links to Taboola and Outbrain, and so forth, in a desperate scramble to drag in a few more pennies.

It is a death spiral.

So heinous is the user experience that many people install ad blockers. I have. I'm actually running two at once. After a lifetime in the news business, am I a traitor? I'm fed up with the advertising-driven nightmare.

It's not all advertising, of course. No, I don't want your push notifications. No, I don't want to sign up for your email newsletter. Yes, I'm aware that you're hosing me down with ad-targeting cookies (that I will delete). But advertising, much of it remainder-network trash, is the bulk of it.

This lack of commitment manifests itself in another big way: the stripping away of reader value in the news product.

Newsrooms have become lonely, nearly empty places populated by a few struggling reporters who could make more money running a gas station cash register or waiting on customers at Applebee's. Experience and expertise are thrown overboard in semi-annual rounds of budget butchery. Stories are posted raw and railroaded into print without competent editing. "Submitted photo" is the staff photographer.

American newspapers have, with a few exceptions, fallen into the hands of investment companies with no interest other than the generation of short-term profit between now and the final collapse. In MBA-speak, this is called brand harvesting. There is no vision of a successful future. There is a plan to maximize return over a finite period -- to treat our journalistic heritage as some sort of reverse mortgage, ending in a bankrupt death.

In the end, it is self-sabotage.