Warren Buffett, who is a wit as well as a multibillionaire, said with reference to the fact that Bernard Madoff's long-running Ponzi scheme came to light during the financial collapse of last fall that until the tide goes out, you don't know who's swimming naked. A year ago Becker and I blogged about the decline of the newspaper industry. A year later the decline has accelerated. The economic crisis has hurt the newspaper industry as it has so many industries. The question is whether it will recover (or at least rejoin its slower downward path of last year) when the economy as a whole recovers; or has the economic crisis merely revealed the terminal status of the industry.
I am pessimistic about a recovery by the newspapers. One reason is the current economic situation. A serious, protracted economic crisis can result in changes in consumer behavior that persist after the end of the crisis. A change in consumption, even in some sense involuntary, can be a learning experience. People make what they think will be merely temporary adjustments in their consumption behavior to reduce financial distress but may discover that they like elements of their new consumption pattern; and businesses too, which have reduced their newspaper (and other print-media) ad expenditures drastically. They may never go back.
Newspaper ad revenues fell by almost 8 percent in 2007, a surprising drop in a non-recession year (the current economic downturn began in the late fall of that year), and by almost 23 percent the following year, and accelerated this year. In the first quarter of 2009 newspaper ad revenues fell 30 percent from their level in the first quarter of 2008. This fall in revenue, amplified by drops in print circulation (about 5 percent last year, and running at 7 percent this year--and readership is declining in all age groups, not just the young), have precipitated bankruptcies of major newspaper companies and, more important, the disappearance of a number of newspapers, including major ones, such as the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Falling revenues have led to layoffs of some 20,000 employees of the remaining newspapers. Print journalism has come to be regarded as a dying profession. Online viewership and revenues have grown but not nearly enough to offset the decline in ad revenues. Even the most prestigious newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today, have experienced staggering losses.
News, as well the other information found in newspapers, is available online for nothing, including at the websites of the newspapers themselves, who thus are giving away content. The fact that online viewing is rising as print circulation is falling indicates a shift of consumers from the paid to the free medium. The economic downturn has doubtless accelerated the trend, but economic recovery is unlikely to reverse it. To repeat my earlier point, many of the people who have switched under economic pressure to the free medium may find themselves as happy or happier and hence will not switch back when their financial condition improves.
Moreover, while in many industries a reduction in output need not entail any reduction in the quality of the product, in newspaper it does entail a reduction in quality. Most of the costs of a newspaper are fixed costs, that is, costs invariant to output--for they are journalists' salaries. A newspaper with shrinking revenues can shrink its costs only by reducing the number of reporters, columnists, and editors, and when it does that quality falls, and therefore demand, and falling demand means falling revenues and therefore increased pressure to economize--by cutting the journalist staff some more. This vicious cycle, amplified by the economic downturn, may continue until very little of the newspaper industry is left.
So what will happen to news and information? Online news is free for two reasons. First, in the case of a newspaper, the marginal cost of providing content online is virtually zero, since it is the same content (or a selection of the content) in a different medium. Second, online providers of news who are not affiliated with a newspaper can provide links to newspaper websites and paraphrase articles in newspapers, in neither case being required to compensate the newspaper.
As newspaper revenues decline, newspaper content becomes thinner and thinner--but by the same token so does the linked or paraphrased newspaper content found in web sites that have no affiliation with a newspaper. If eventually newspapers vanish, online providers will have higher advertising revenues (because newspaper advertising will have disappeared) and may decide to charge for access to their online news, and so the critical question is whether online advertising revenues will defray the costly news-gathering expenses incurred at this time by newspapers. Imagine if the New York Times migrated entirely to the World Wide Web. Could it support, out of advertising and subscriber revenues, as large a news-gathering apparatus as it does today? This seems unlikely, because it is much easier to create a web site and free ride on other sites than to create a print newspaper and free ride on other print newspapers, in part because of the lag in print publication; what is staler than last week's news. Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder's consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder's consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers from so impairing the incentive to create costly news-gathering operations that news services like Reuters and the Associated Press would become the only professional, nongovernmental sources of news and opinion.