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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Paul Guillory

Posted on December 19, 2017 10:22

6 users

We do a good job of transferring power every four years or so in this country. Confidence in an independent press is critical to this process.

Lost in the aftermath of the presidential election, and the political chaos that came after, is that the greatest power on earth transferred power from one head of state to another in relatively peaceful fashion.

While we did what no great power on earth can do, and if it were easy everyone would do it, the transition back and forth between the two parties is jolting.

One of our jobs as citizens, in the interim between these transitions, is to work at reducing this effect for next time. Where we can come together, we should. And where we disagree, we should say so.

The health of a democracy is change more than stability. We test that notion every four years. There must be something special about four years.  We do four years of junior high, high school, college and the presidency.  The medicine is change itself, rather than any political prescription prescribed by this, or that, head of state.

It looks like there is one new problem, however. It should pass, but we noticed it in 2017: Having a centered discussion is more and more difficult. We struggle to agree on facts, much less solutions. In place of debate we've heard the charge of "fake news" a lot this year. News is changing and confidence is shaken.

In 1833, a 23-year-old millennial-type in New York had an idea: sell newspapers, not for the going rate of six cents, but for one cent. Then, he would sell the attention from his growing readership to advertisers. It worked. Circulation exploded, and the modern newspaper business model was begun. 

Fast forward to today. Newspapers are having a hard time. Smaller markets are increasingly less able to sustain them at all. They are losing the battle for attention.

No one is immune. Twenty years ago, 27% of The New York Time’s revenue was from content circulation. The rest was advertising. Now, because revenue from advertising is way down, circulation accounts for over 60% of revenue. They are making far less money.

Two revolutionary companies, Facebook and Google, account for more than 50% of all online revenue from advertising sales. Two companies. That is where the attention is going.

Is the newspaper industry outdated? Should it be allowed to die? The "fake news" episode makes me believe there is nothing outdated about an independent press. We need them. Whether fake news is intentionally disseminated as real, or real news is accused of being fake, this was a frustrating trend of 2017. 

Coincidental with our new reliance on social media and search engines is that something is amiss.  We still have time to figure out what. And, if we don’t know what to do we should experiment. More competition? More regulation?

I think if tech companies are the problem, they are also the cure — not they themselves, companies come and go, but the ideas they profit from. Somehow, I think those ideas will get us back to confidence in news. 

There's still time.

Paul Guillory

Posted on December 19, 2017 10:22

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