Passing glances: making news pay, making Jobs sing, making protest work

Copies of the Times emerge from a cutting and folding machine, September 1942

How the news was made: Copies of the Times emerge from a cutting and folding machine, September 1942. (Photo by Marjory Collins)

When the Internet was young(er), publications, like other businesses, began establishing outposts there. This now seems like something of a recap of the original frontier experience: the Internet was fresh ground, unexplored territory, ripe for shaping, settling, colonizing, conquering. It may be going too far to say the whole thing exemplifies Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis (which in any case is still contested), but the expansion into the online realm has certainly been critical for periodicals.

Curiously, while most other businesses went to the Internet to sell, periodicals didn’t. Most if not all of the newspapers and magazines that started putting their material online were giving away what they charged people to obtain in printed form. In part, I think publishers saw an Internet edition as a way to lure readers to their print product; online journalism often served as a promotional medium for “the real thing,” as music videos were originally regarded as a promotion for albums, not products in their own right. And in part, this took place because there was no clear and easy way to charge for online news. Besides, there was that buzzy notion that “Information wants to be free.” Everybody knew that information was seldom free anywhere else, but things seemed to be different online.

Jump ahead to the early teens, and periodicals that were publishing online as well as in print, especially news outlets, were in trouble. Costs were up, advertising was down, subscriptions were declining, competition from free online sources increased by the day, et cetera, et cetera (as the King of Siam liked to say). But recently that situation has begun to change. A Friday morning item in the Axios Login newsletter brought good news from six major publishers:

Since the election, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Tronc, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and Gannett have all reported jumps in subscriptions.

The Login item also brought word of a new study, which indicates, among other things, that just over half of Americans are now paying for news. It ended with a downside, however: “Subscription revenue is still a long way from replacing plunging ad revenue.”

That’s overstated in one case, though. Last Sunday’s Axios AM newsletter carried the surprising news that The New York Times is earning more from circulation than from ads, and that’s been so for five years running. On top of that, the Times added more than a quarter of a million net digital subscribers in the first quarter of 2017. An excellent graph makes a few things stunningly clear: ad sales “fell off a cliff in the middle of the 2000s,” to quote a Recode article that’s one source for the Axios item; circulation has been growing steadily, more than doubling across 20 years; but total revenue still falls short of the boom years. (You can only estimate this last point by eye; the original graph, in Recode, lets you hover over various years and read out exact numbers, but it dumbly provides no annual totals. I did it for you—2006 was the top earnings year.)

Data is one thing, words are another. At the Times, circulation for 2016 brought in more money than ads had earned since 2008. In one sense, then, subscription revenue has replaced ad revenue at the Times—as the leading source of income. In another sense, it hasn’t—circulation hasn’t made up for what’s been lost in ads.

There’s an irony in what I’ve been discussing. Though I pay for news from two digital sources (the Times and The Economist) and sometimes donate to The Guardian (which is trying the Wikipedia approach of asking for contributions), I also get some of my news, obviously, from two Axios newsletters, and those, like everything on the Axios site itself, are free. Giving away news that costs money to produce seems increasingly like a shaky proposition. I won’t be surprised if Axios launches a pay scheme, and I’ll probably go along. You might want to check it before that happens.

For online news, the shape of things to come remains unclear. Publications seem to be bringing back subscribers, but they may not bring back the coverage and the staff that has been cut—in arts and entertainment criticism, among other areas. I’d say the outlook is, if not good, at least less bad. Here’s how a film noir zinged a similar situation (as recounted here):

“Is there any way to win?,” Jane Greer asks Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947). “There’s a way to lose more slowly,” he replies.


The musical theater has attempted so many improbable things that I sometimes think there’s a game going on. “Bet you can’t make [fill in the blank] into a musical.” “Oh yeah? You’re on.” Opera, as a species of musical theater, has played the same game, as two examples may show. President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China? Done: Nixon in China (1987). President Kennedy’s last night? Done: JFK (2016). (Honestly, those are the first examples that came to mind, but they fit right in with what I’m about to tell you.) Next up in the line of unlikely operas about flawed but historically important men will be The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which is scheduled to premiere this summer. A few details are here. Incidentally, I learned of it from another Axios Login newsletter.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2010, Malcolm Gladwell summarized a commonly accepted view: “The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He went on to dispute that view, arguing that online organizing doesn’t by itself provide leadership or motivation and that it forges only weak ties that may not stand up in the face of danger or adversity. Needless to say, his essay didn’t settle the issue, but Twitter and Facebook reach many more users than they did in 2010, and we now have six more years of experience with social media and social activism to consider. Drawing on that, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written a book that, at the very least, furthers the discussion: Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, officially due out on May 16. To judge from the title as well as from interview excerpts in MIT Technology Review, she doesn’t side with the evangelists or the naysayers as a general position, though she may in particular cases. Reviews should be out soon if they aren’t already appearing.

An hour-long conversation with Tufekci that took place at Harvard on May 9 was archived and can be replayed, in either audio or video form, here.

Note on the image at top: From a series of photos taken in September 1942 by Office of War Information photographer Marjory Collins, documenting the production of The New York Times. The series is now in the Library of Congress and was published online by Mashable on May 6.


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