A Way Out of the Newspaper Abyss

For ten years newspaper publishers and editors have been wringing their hands about declining “household coverage,” the percentage of households that subscribe to a daily newspaper. Coverage figures have declined from more than 80 percent in the 1950s, to about 60 percent in the 1960s, to below 40 percent today. The decline is worrisome enough that Philip Meyer, the gray eminence of the University of North Carolina’s journalism program, has projected the trend into the future-and concluded that the last newspaper subscriber will die in April, 2041.

But newspapers will expire before their subscribers do, because it’s not cost-efficient to deliver newspapers in neighborhoods where few subscribers live. Industry leaders are now saying that they can’t guarantee that their home-delivery products will exist ten years from now.

The solution-and a part of the cause of the problem-has been the rise of the Net. Until recently, publishers hadn’t found a way to “monetize” electronic delivery of the news. Advertisers weren’t willing to pay for transmitting their messages to a public whose demographics, unlike those of yesterday’s dailies, were less than universal, but couldn’t be closely identified.

Newspapers had faced that problem of marketing fragmented in an oblique way, by creating separate sections: tires are advertised, for example, in sports sections, and accountants advertise on business pages. Theaters and night clubs advertised in weekly entertainment supplements.

But sections don’t really exist in web newspapers. What the reader ordinarily views is one story per page.

That problem has now been solved by advertising and computer gurus, though its application to electronic newspaper is still in the works. It is exemplified, in its most popular form, by gmail, the email service launched by Google. Gmail matches ads to the content of the messages that it carries. If A sends B a message reading, “I love Miami’s beaches and art deco architecture,” ads for flights to the city attach themselves.

The mail-reading system is so hip that if A sends B a newspaper story about Hugo Chavez, ads for pro- and anti-Chavez t-shirts will appear on the screen.

Even missives that mention Communism are matched by links that sell Marxist books, red ephemera and memorabilia.

The system, like segregating news into sections of a newspaper, gives advertisers what they’ve wanted since the rise of the postmodern economy: the chance to “sponsor” stories that reach a target audience, and no one else.

Machine-matching of story content and advertising undermines the much-vaunted wall “between of Church and State”-between the advertising and editorial departments of a publication-a “wall” that editors and publishers always styled as impenetrable. Since no human being with the awareness of a story’s content makes the match between news and ads, nobody is to blame when marriages are made.

Gmail’s keyword search engines are programmed to withhold ads from stories with tragic content, the announcement of natural disasters and news about the Iraq war, for example. The result is that a story about Brittney Spears will allure advertisers, while stories about national, racial or class conflicts are orphaned.

Gmail’s tragedy filter confirms an observation that magazine operatives, if no one else, have made over time. Downbeat stories don’t put readers in a mood to buy. The “feature core” of a magazine-the center section, from whose pages ads are usually banned-is like the promenades of shopping malls: if dirges are played over the mall’s Muzak system, readers/buyers don’t look at the wares sold in the stores along their sides. This being the case, it is unlikely that newspapers, when they adopt matching systems, will discard tragedy filters. Even providers of flood insurance and funeral services would find it unseemly to advertise alongside stories about Hurricane Katrinas.

Over the long run, ad-and-content matching is likely to de-emphasize the reporting of bad tidings. Editors will find it harder to justify the expense of writing about coal mine disasters and easier to justify covering lawn-and-garden shows.

While no newspaper that I’m familiar with has yet adopted gmail-type matching, a half-dozen publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are experimenting with a similar, if clunkier system. If a reader opens a sports or business page of the Constitution, he or she will find a few words underlined in green; running a cursor over those words will deliver pop-up ads. According to Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University, the underlined keywords have been bought by advertisers, for example, ‘Texas’ by American Express, ‘football’ by the Ford Motor Company.

Not long after matching is adopted, it will probably confer an additional benefit on news magnates. Advertising executives, and we must assume, editorial executives, will be able to type a reporter’s name into a computer to view a count of the number and value of ads his or her stories have attracted. From there, it will be but a short route to the characterization of reporters as “profit leaders” and “loss leaders.”

Reporting has always been a trade of rabid rivalries. Journalists compete for salaries, for assignments, for status, and today, for exemption from layoffs. The quantification of their skills won’t change any of that.

But journalists have traditionally reserved an epithet for those in our ranks who, in a more primitive, less quantifiable system, wrote whatever our bosses wanted.

We called them hacks.

Let’s hope that the term doesn’t vanish into the cybersphere.

DICK J. REAVIS is a professor of journalism at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at dickjreavis@yahoo.com.




Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.