Conservatively, counting just the biggest chunks of staff time that went into it, the prison story cost roughly $350,000. The banner ads that appeared on the article brought in $5,000, give or take. Had we been really in your face with ads, we could have doubled or tripled that figure—but it would have been a pain for you, and still only a drop in the bucket for us.
I saw a lot of people quoting this passage in the past few days with “see, you lazy kids with your iPhones getting your news for free, see what it costs?” undertones, which a) not the real problem and b) not actually, you know, a contribution to the conversation.
Subscriptions never paid for journalism. “Readers” never paid for journalism. And advertisers didn’t pay for journalism, they paid for eyeballs and favorable almost-advertorial stories on real estate, automobiles and travel to places most newspaper readers would never see. Those sections, along with ads in sports, paid for journalism.
After a weak economy and higher newsgathering costs took their toll on newspaper profits last year, corporate executives could expect to see reductions in their compensation packages. But all in all, 2001 was quite lucrative for newspaper managers and other insiders.
During the first half of the year, many of them fattened their bank accounts by exercising options and selling stock even as layoffs and budget cutbacks were sweeping through the industry. Total insider selling from January through June was $146.5 million, more than twice the level of activity in the previous six months, according to a study for AJR by Thomson Financial/Lancer Analytics.
Needless acquisitions that loaded up newspaper companies with impossible debts, “diversifying” holdings with stupid shit like sports teams and TV stations, also contributed to the sucking of money out of the newsroom, while those same execs bitched in the trades that nobody younger than 40 read serious things anymore. I will listen to them telling me to pay for my news when they start doing it.
All digital advertising did was shoot the wounded. People getting news for free should have been a gift, because: people were getting news! People getting news for free should have been a magnificent boon to journalism, had media companies leveraged their vast new audiences correctly and tried to actually SELL ads rather than just put their news sites up and wait for the magical money faucet to turn on.
They spent a decade simultaneously chasing pipe dreams (A roll-up piece of digital paper! Apple’s working on one right now I hear!) and trashing their current and potential customers as trivial, celebrity-obsessed consumers of mental junk food. Almost nobody figured out that if you sell the junk food, you can pay for the journalism. Those who did figure that out were able to hire campaign reporters as well as fund watermelon-smashing videos.
So what we’re left with, after all that flailing, is the idea that journalism is some kind of vending machine, and you can only do serious investigations by using money directly paid to those investigations. Which is dishonest, ridiculous horseshit, ignorant of ancient and recent history. I’m not mad at Mother Jones here; they did their work and they’re bringing up valid issues. I’m mad at the journos who see those issues and yell SEE, SEE, YOU KIDS NEED TO PAY FOR YOUR FREE STUFF.
Not for nothing, but almost every major investigation a non-journo can name — Watergate, Spotlight, locally the Chicago Police torture cases — that predated the social Internet faced ENORMOUS pressure from inside the newsroom in terms of how much time it was taking and how much it thus cost. We have always struggled with these things.
It’s just that once upon a time we didn’t use the fact that it was hard as an excuse not to do anything, and crab at our customers to stick a dollar in the slot if they want a real story while we expense our party’s summer drinks.