Cataclysmic Changes To The Industry Have Made A Free Press Vulnerable To The Whims Of Federal Regulators
While scrolling through your Facebook feed last week, you may have noticed a few of your friends shared articles on a potential rollback of rules protecting net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the basic principle that prohibits the nation’s major internet service providers (like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon) from picking and choosing what content gets sped up, what they slow down or what can be blocked, including any type of content, applications or websites you want to use. A term coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003, this principle serves as an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier, which in legalese describes the impartial role telephone systems must play to its customers.
Naturally, this proposal elicited quite a response from people, especially considering 287 million people in the United States – approximately 88 percent of the population – use the internet every day. The World Wide Web has become an essential utility for many, one that has become their primary portal to their neighbors, their families and even their jobs as society has adapted to its presence. For better or worse, the internet has shaped a whole new world we now live in, influencing some aspect of almost every piece of our lives.
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It is the degree to which the internet has impacted our industry in particular – the newsgathering business – that has us feeling the need to appeal you to join the fight against this repeal.
It is no secret that the publishing industry – once a rigid and immovable piece of our lives for centuries before the advent of computers – has become a volatile one in the digital age. Ad revenues became unpredictable as circulation numbers gave way to unique visitors and engagement time. The classifieds, the only truly viable subsidy we got from the public (trust us, it’s NOT subscriptions paying for top editors and reporters) went the way of Craigslist and, later, the Facebook for-sale pages. Kicking and screaming, the business has worked to adjust in order to continue serving its mission. We’ve gone online, finding our following once again in the internet age and, even though we’re a free publication, our web presence has allowed us to connect to new audiences and, realistically, give our sales staff a stronger product to sell our advertisers. (Thanks, by the way, for allowing me to continue to write for a living.)
The Internet took a lot away from the industry, true. But it’s also forced us to adjust our sails, playing to the paradigm of this weird, new world where money seemingly comes from nowhere other than exposure. All of which is expected for free. Now, the government wants to take away all we have left, which we contend – given this new paradigm – is not only an indirect violation of the First Amendment, but an assault on local media itself. Here’s why…
The Internet Has Taken Advertising Revenues From Newspapers, Limiting Income Streams To Online Advertising As we mentioned before, people do not use print like they used to. They don’t look in the paper for jobs; they use Indeed, Monster, Careerbuilder.com, Craigslist. They don’t pay for advertisements to sell their lawnmowers; they use the online marketplace. You don’t even need to pay for an obituary anymore: you can pay your respects in a heartfelt Facebook status which can be updated – for free – with the date of the funeral.
Printing a newspaper, as not too many realize, works on an economy of scale. As a free paper to begin with and with the loss of these valuable classified revenues, the amount of money we have to physically print the paper while still paying staff becomes limited. The Ithaca Times, due, once again, to great sponsors that really buy into the system, has been fairly lucky. But across the nation, circulations are falling, and falling fast. Among dailies, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center analysis, total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers – both print and digital – fell 8 percent in 2016. Among weeklies, the average circulation among the nation’s top 20 papers fell from a peak average of 87,000 in 2012 to a current average of 61,600. (We at The Times print about 18,000 a week)
As revenues continue to fall, so must the number of papers we print. And this is a problem we discuss with…
The Inadvertent Demolition Of The Industry Has Eliminated Any Subsidy For Print, Leaving Those Without The Internet Few Alternatives For News The beautiful thing about outlets like the Ithaca Times and Tompkins Weekly is we print for free. The other free outlets in town – WHCU, The Ithaca Voice – each have their own business models, one of which faces an existential threat to its audience with the repeal of net neutrality while the other, does not.
You could argue that, without the internet, those among us who can’t afford the internet in an unregulated market would instead turn to another outlet for news. That, of course, relies on the rest of us not only continuing to produce the news, but to do a comprehensive job as well. This, in our experience, is an impossible task for one outlet.
Why is that? Well…
The Internet Has Changed The Mission Of Journalism As It Began To Cater To An Online Audience There once was a golden age of the news where everything worked like it was supposed to. Everyone subscribed to The Ithaca Journal, classified sections were vibrant and essential to daily life and businesses – with no email lists or pages to follow – had no means of amplifying their message other than the medium offered by the local publisher. With the money, it was once possible to have an outlet that could offer comprehensive coverage of a city. Local newspapers could invest in reporters to cover schools, reporters to cover courts, towns and City Hall. They had men and women to cover the police, the occasional fire in the city, even the occasional investigative piece that can take weeks to months to produce.
Today, no news outlet is comprehensive. We say ‘no’ more than we’d like. We take too long to return calls. With little resources to rely on, we look to our competition to cover the areas we don’t while we seek the spaces they don’t have time to go. And in the age of the internet, nobody goes hungry. If the Ithaca Journal doesn’t have a story on a fire, you can check the Ithaca Voice. If the WHCU’s analysis of the Dryden budget leaves you wanting, you can check the Dryden Courier.
The broadsheet has gotten slimmer over the years, it’s true. Now, only broadband remains and if net neutrality is suddenly eliminated, what once happened to the thick Sunday edition on your doorstep is bound to happen here.
Weaker protections on the internet will only equal a weaker local news scene. Please take the time to visit savetheinternet.com/action sometime this week, to find out how you can speak up.