The New York Times has reduced the number of free articles they are doling out by half.
So now you can read half as many fuzzy bunny profiles on Neo-Nazis for free before you are expected to pony up for your monthly hit of propaganda.
Some people think this is a positive development for the press. As the Bloomberg article gushed:
With demand for journalism “at an all-time high,” the Times decided this was the right moment to experiment with giving away less online content for free, said Meredith Kopit Levien, New York Times Co.’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
“It’s a very hot news cycle,” Levien said. “We think it’s as good conditions as any to demonstrate to people that high-quality journalism is something to be paid for.”
It is an interesting theory, but I know something about the shell games and smoke and mirrors game of paid circulation as I used to write about it when I was a journalist covering the newspaper industry.
The dodgy ways newspapers used to count paid circulation was extraordinary.
Paid circulation numbers were always inflated. For example, newspapers the “sold” for as little as a penny were counted as part of paid circulation.
It was those “free” newspapers that used to litter colleges, apartment buildings, and restaurants about fifteen years ago. The racks of unread newspapers were counted as being paid for and read.
It is also the same with online articles: I can click on a story and even keep it on my browser, I didn’t necessarily read it or even meant to click there.
When I do my requisite media reading for my web site, for example, I go through a lot of articles before deciding which ones I will link to here, but you can’t exactly count my hits as hits.
I pull up a bunch of articles, and then do other things, such as write or tend to other things. I skim to see whether the article is in-house or a wire story, and whether there is anything new.
Then I post the link and/or quote an excerpt.
Advertisers get nothing out of me as I never click on their products. Never. I usually get ads for products I no longer need because I already bought it through Amazon.
News outlets get even less from me because I am not buying what they are selling.
They may get hits from me, and frequently, but not usable ones.
I am not a news consumer. I am a quality control critic.
But the biggest problem for journalists right now if the sole reason they still believe they exist: Donald J. Trump.
Everything is pinned on him, and a few quickly ousted celebrities caught sexually harassing underlings.
The sex harassers will not sustain the news cycle much longer past the New Year, and as they are villains who have been vanquished, they are not enough to sustain interest. You can look on Twitter, and Rose McGowan will tweet about it, and that’s all you need to know.
Those are nothing more than headline scans, not actual stories.
But Donald Trump is the only long-arc going in a world of 7.4 billion people, but the problem is the people who have come to watch the sucker circus and media freak show are not going to stay for long. No Donald, no audience. Even terrorists do not get people worked up anymore. Apathy for current events runs deep.
The Toronto Star had punching bag Rob Ford, but once he left the mayor’s office after being diagnosed with a terminal cancer, the circulation numbers dropped, and the launch of the app Star Touch, was a failure, and people in the newsrooms still lost their jobs.
Hanging the freak has always been a short-term fixed, and once the freak is gone, audiences leave because those who come to a flogging are just looking for a cheap thrill. They are not news consumers. They want to see someone who seems to have it better than they are get it worse than they do.
But the gambit seemed to work in the 1990s when “super-stories”: OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton’s Impeachment, and Princess Diana’s private life — had soap opera qualities that involved shenanigans from those in power, or at least glamour.
Those stories were used to boost flagging audiences, but with each hit, the decline would worsen after every story. Aiming at Trump will be worse for two reasons: one, there is no heir apparent who can gain the same public interest, as even the #MeToo arc has denigrated to a mere Hall of Shame. You need dozens of semi-celebrities to maintain the interest. Once upon a time, only a single player would generate far more interest. With stories such as that, people want it resolved to Solved and Filed Under Happily Ever After. It will not become a follow-up to Trump.
Second, the fragmentation of audiences has denigrated the concept of icon and celebrity. Trump’s heyday was in the 1980s, and he is just about the only person left who was willing to take a risk and had name recognition. Fame means nothing anymore — and with reporters looking for easy hits with built-in name recognition, that avenue is about to close.
There is no follow-up, and the circulation and ratings continue to drop. If any outlets have a short-term Trump boost, it’s national outlets, and local ones are being shuttered. What that means is the roots of the media tree are dying — and hence, no one will learn the craft from the ground up.
And that will hasten the demise of the profession. There is no follow-up act. The next person running for president will have an army of PR people to ensure everything looks bland and acceptable.
With no local outlets, the big ones will suffer until they can no longer reach anyone post-Trump. With too much hype, there is too little return — worse, the people looking for a freak hanging will not stick around.
This is the state of North American journalism. It has been decimated, and the expectations are so pathetic, that anyone looking at them for any reason is cause for celebration.
And when Trump either leaves, or figures out the painfully simple way to thwart the press and yet again beat them at their own game, there will be no one else to latch on to because the Internet turned the precious commodity of public attention and made it mundane. People still prefer looking at their own selfies than know about their town’s finances.
It is tough times ahead for a profession that has already seen its demise, but hasn’t come to grips with it just yet.