“Newspaperdeathwatch.com” dedicates itself to “chronicling the decline of newspapers and the rebirth of journalism,” and tracks an ever-growing list of newspapers that have gone bankrupt since 2007 when the site began. Dozens of revered daily newspapers have closed their doors in the wake of one of the most pronounced cases ever of technology disruption of an industry. All newspapers, especially those that focus on local news, have faced shutdown or drastically downsized operations.
The reason for this decline has less to do with the fact that readers consume news on their computers, tablets, and phones as most people suspect. Readership numbers are not down; if anything, total reader numbers have surged since the internet has made content more accessible for local newspapers. Rather, the decline has occurred due to fundamental issues of supply and demand of “advertising inventory,” which represents total, sellable available advertising space. The internet, as well as advertising technology, has created infinite advertising inventory in a world that previously had a finite amount inventory, all of which sat with newspapers and magazines.
In 1994 if a brand wanted to reach a national audience that reads news, or on a specific day (rather than a weekly or monthly magazine), that brand could advertise on either The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and to an extent The Washington Post and USA Today. Advertising inventory to target newspaper readers was scarce, and limited to these newspapers with a broad reach. Newspapers contained a fixed amount of pages and square inches that could house advertisements, and with this limited supply came a high price for advertising space, and incredible power and influence for these newspapers. Rumors of the golden age for advertising salespeople include tales of newspaper ad salespeople being entertained, perversely, by brands that hoped to be moved up a “wait list” for advertising placements. Life was good for newspapers.
As the internet grew exponentially in the late 1990’s, so did the amount of advertising inventory. Any person with an internet connection and a blog was technically a “publisher,” and could procure content to a large audience similar to a newspaper. With more content came more advertising inventory, and suddenly major newspapers were no longer the sole purveyors of this finite source of advertising inventory. Advertising inventory could be found everywhere on the web. In 2003, Google opened the advertising floodgates by creating a network called “Adsense” that allowed publishers (even your roommate with a video game blog) to sell advertising space, and in a way that would be more “targeted” than newspapers. An advertiser that only wanted to advertise to video game buyers could do so a lot more efficiently by running on your roommate’s blog than he could on, say, the Wall Street Journal.
With these innovations, in an extremely simple “supply and demand” scenario, the supply of advertising inventory surged, so the price of advertising space dropped considerably. Much of this expanded inventory came at the hands of Google Adsense and a few other networks. Surprising to some, roughly 95% of Google’s revenue (which was $50 billion in 2012) comes from advertising. Google is, at its core, an advertising company.
Because the value of advertising units has plummeted, newspapers today simply drive less revenues, whether print or digital. And the unfortunate newspapers with operations that require higher prices for advertising sales than the market was paying, found themselves underwater and on possibly newspaperdeathwatch.com. Hit especially hard were the local, smaller newspapers that could not attract advertisers the way that larger, farther reaching newspapers could.
In the next article I will explore how advertising technology, despite bringing an industry to its knees, is now rewarding and leading a resurrection for premium newspapers that have a strong brand and broad reach.
Tripp Weber graduated Johns Hopkins in 2009 with an International Relations major and Entrepreneurship and Management Minor. He currently works as an Advertising Manager for the New York Times.
– Tripp Weber