Earlier this month, Matthew Yglesias of Slate authored a piece, "Online news hasn't killed newspapers – it's the death of advertising". Yglesias describes the impact of an over-reliance on advertising, a theme covered here before:
[The Internet makes] it much more difficult to make money by connecting readers to advertisers. That's been a huge problem for legacy newspapers, but it's also a problem for Web-native publications. This isn't just a question of the rates, but of the fact that whole big use cases for print advertising have been undercut by alternative Web-based means [of] finding customers.
A week later, Jeff Bercovici of Forbes.com posted an article about a study that found Craigslist, the online listings service, had "taken" $5 billion from the newspaper industry. This estimate appears to be the result of both lost advertising and lower rates on advertising that newspapers retained.
The headline on Bercovici's piece, "Sorry, Craig: Study Finds Craigslist Took $5 Billion From Newspapers", responds in part to a long-standing claim by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark that he had not seen proof that Craigslist caused the decline of many newspapers. As Bercovici puts it:
For years, newspaper publishers have been saying Craiglist cut the legs out from under their industry by offering a cheap, easy online alternative to their classified advertising pages. For years, Craigslist’s creator, Craig Newmark, has been refusing to shoulder the blame.
There's that word… Blame. The business model changes, and we're looking for someone to blame. Craigslist "took" money from newspapers and largely returned it to consumers, in the form of lower rates for ads.
Of course, before Craigslist, no one wrote that newspapers "took" money from consumers. It was just a transaction.
Despite the headline and early narrative, Bercovici found that the folks who studied the impact of Craigslist on the newspaper business did not "blame" Craigslist:
[The author] insists that what they found when they put newspapers under the microscope was an industry that’s evolving, akin to the way it did after the introduction of radio and then television. So when Newmark says he’s not to blame for their extinction, he’s not wrong.
“I wouldn’t say Craigslist is killling newspapers. We hear a lot about how the newspaper industry is dying or maybe a dinosaur. My coauthor and I definitely don’t think that’s the case.”
Facts… stubborn things. Why write about "taking" and "blaming" when the story is more complex than that? Perhaps it's worth considering the impact of an ad-driven, traffic-dependent model on the writing at Forbes.com.
2 thoughts on “How you frame it”
This is the exact line / argument that got me incredibly excited about the future of the media business. At business school we had the CEO of one of Europe’s largest newspapers giving a talk to a media strategy class. He derisively said “craigslist killed a $10 billion industry for what, a $300 million business? It’s disgusting.”
As someone who has derived immense value from craigslist over many years, I instantly realized just how much the news industry didn’t “get it”, and how wide open the playing field will be for a while.
It’s true… if someone else has an idea that is going to eat your lunch, you’re better off developing an appetite and eating it first. A purely defensive strategy can work for a time, particularly when habits are entrenched, but it doesn’t last forever.