The Media Bubble Is Real, But Not Because The Media Is Bad

It’s because newspapers and advertising are terminally ill.

Image: Nathan Winter

The old newspaper business model almost prevented this kind of clustering. Except for the national broadsheets — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and increasingly the Washington Post — newspapers must locate, cheek by jowl, next to their customers, the people who consume local news, and whom local advertisers need to reach. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader is stuck in South Dakota just as the owners of hydroelectric plants in the Rockies are stuck where they are. As much as they might want to move their dams to coastal markets where they could charge more for electricity, fate has fixed them geographically. Economists call these “non-tradable goods” — goods that must be consumed in the same community in which they’re made. The business of a newspaper can’t really be separated from the place where it’s published. It is, or was, driven by ads for things that don’t travel, like real estate, jobs, home decor and cars. And as that advertising has gotten harder and harder to come by, local newsrooms have become thinner and thinner.

This is a good read on the media’s perspective problem, and rightly accounts the lack of coverage of middle America in large part to the collapse of middle American, local and regional newspapers. BUT WHY DOESN’T ANYONE HAVE A VIABLE SOLUTION? It’s not like the journalists of today can all just decamp and move to Sioux Falls or Des Moines to report the local news, partly because there are probably fewer jobs than ever in those cities, and also because they might almost drown after one week of actual reporting. (Just kidding, I think it would be phenomenal training.) And it’s not like Shafer has any actual suggestions:

Journalism tends toward the autobiographical unless reporters and editors make a determined effort to separate themselves from the frame of their own experiences. The best medicine for journalistic myopia isn’t reeducation camps or a splurge of diversity hiring, though tiny doses of those two remedies wouldn’t hurt. Journalists respond to their failings best when their vanity is punctured with proof that they blew a story that was right in front of them. If the burning humiliation of missing the biggest political story in a generation won’t change newsrooms, nothing will. More than anything, journalists hate getting beat.

Why NOT a new kind of Works Progress Administration for internet writers? Yes, Jack, a re-education camp for bloggers. The Federal Bloggers’ Project. They would be sent across the country to umm, collect local stories and ethnographies and tell us exactly how many more days of Donald Trump we will have to endure through their dogged reporting. It’s not like bloggers even know how to REPORT anymore, amirite? Okay fine, I’ll admit it: the only viable solution to this bubble problem is to go back in time to before the Internet and Craigslist killed the newspaper for good. Patch and other hyperlocal news sites will not save us because no one has ever succeeded in making as much money as you used to be able to by telling people what was happening. Why won’t anyone just admit the 5 jillion-ton elephant in the ether: advertising, which is not broken exactly, but irreparably fucked beyond recognition, having been torn to into a state of segmented inequality almost eerily similar to both income inequality and media coverage?