In the early 2000s, advertisers discovered that the likes of Monster.com, Cars.com, Craigslist, and Google gave them far more efficient ways to reach consumers than the newspapers ever could. The business of regional and local newspapers fell into a downward spiral, from which it has not emerged.
Which brings us to now. On the national level, at least, there are all manner of experiments and signs of success. The New York Times has, thanks partly to the success of its metered paywall, returned to a 19th-century model whereby circulation brings in more money than advertising. Buzzfeed has, by astutely catering to the massive new distribution network that is Facebook, built a huge audience at relatively low cost, while bringing in revenue with clever (and clearly labeled) modern equivalents of the “reading notice.”
The role of Facebook is worth dwelling on. The site competes with media companies in that, like them, it makes money by delivering audiences to advertisers. So does Google. These two are also possibly the most successful such enterprises ever. “They’ve become the mass media, and traditional news organizations have become the niche,” says Ken Doctor, a former executive with the now-defunct Knight Ridder newspaper chain, who writes the influential Newsonomics blog. The returns to scale and the monopoly or oligopoly profits that once accrued to news companies are going somewhere else now. The recent spate of innovative media organizations does not change that.
There are still ways to make money in news. But only in rare cases will the news business be a path to sustained riches.