There is more at stake in the answer than the fortunes of our two online overlords. It will also help determine the fate of the rest of the digital media. And that, in turn, will affect whether cities like this one will be able to maintain a vibrant free press that keeps government honest and voters informed.
So, yeah, America’s Advertisers, I’m talking about democracy, and your role in it. News flash: You have one. Let me explain.
We are still very much in the midst of a fascinating, often exciting but sometimes scary digital transformation in which advertising dollars are moving to Google and Facebook in a hurry.
But as those dollars are moving toward Google and Facebook, they are often moving away from quality news and information providers, starving them of the direct digital revenue they need to pay for fact-based news gathering. Real news costs real money; fake news comes cheap.
So you have best-of-times-worst-of-times weeks like the one that just passed. Facebook announced yet another better-than-expected quarter of earnings, just as Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, had a few days before.
At the same time, word seeped out about layoffs at local Gannett-owned papers including The Independent Mail of Anderson County, S.C., and The Sun-News of Las Cruces, N.M. The McClatchy-owned Tribune of San Luis Obispo, Calif., also confirmed layoffs, The New Times reported.
Here in Philadelphia, reporters at The Inquirer and The Daily News got an email with instructions on how to go about reapplying for jobs in a reorganized newsroom, the latest chapter in their corporate parent’s mad dash to retool the papers for survival in a world dominated by Google and Facebook.
It’s just the latest bit of upheaval in their joint operation, which is now combined into a single newsroom after The Daily News vacated its own. The former Daily News newsroom is just across a hallway from the Inquirer space here on Market Street, and it still sits tauntingly empty save for an old neon “Daily News: The People Paper” sign, which now sits unlit.
The shifting dynamic is especially hard for old-line newspapers, whose lucrative classified ads were rendered obsolete by the likes of Craigslist, and high-margin print advertising fled to the Web. They had hoped to make up the difference through online advertisements. Then Google and Facebook fired up their cash vacuums.
Their draw for marketers is all too powerful, and understandable. Advertisers were once happy to pay to reach big, broad audiences with the hope of getting their messages in front of the right customers — buying the whole cow just to get the milk, it was called — and they would turn to local newspapers for what once passed for geographical precision. Now they can use Facebook and Google to reach a smaller, more targeted audience, right down to the correct ZIP code.
The new environment is forcing newspapers to scramble to come up with a solution that can keep the lights on, and keep the staff large enough to continue to do real, probing journalism, before it’s too late and it’s all over.
If you want to understand the seriousness of the challenge, check out the Columbia Journalism Review’s local journalism issue, out Monday, which has a map of “America’s Growing News Deserts.”
The country’s still-standing metropolitan dailies are increasingly requiring extra help from benevolent rich people. The Philadelphia Media Network — the owner of The Inquirer, The Daily News and Philly.com — has been lucky enough to have a benefactor in H. F. Lenfest. Last year, he donated the group to a foundation he created, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which he endowed with $ 20 million.
Last week, the institute followed up by announcing that it had secured $ 26.5 million more from donors, and Mr. Lenfest committed an additional $ 40 million in future matching funds, all with a goal of finding “sustainable business models for high-quality journalism.”
In an interview, I asked Mr. Lenfest a leading question: Does the diminishing of local newspapers mean open season for corrupt city officials?
“I don’t think our city government is corrupt — but sometimes they need correcting, and that is the responsibility of the newspaper,’’ he said. “There will be a tremendous vacuum if these local newspapers don’t continue to print.”
It’s not hyperbole. I grew up in Philadelphia, reading The Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés of the Philadelphia court system — by a team including Buzz Bissinger — and of the Philadelphia Police Department K-9 unit by William K. Marimow, now the paper’s editor at large.
Even while fighting today’s economic headwinds, the paper has continued the tradition. Its reporting figured prominently in the case of Kathleen Kane, the former Pennsylvania attorney general and a rising-star Democrat, who was convicted last year on charges of abuse of power and perjury, among others.
But as David Boardman, who sits on the Lenfest Institute board of managers, told me, the group “still needs to make a buck” under the terms of its philanthropic support.
“Ultimately, you can’t continue to contribute to something that is inevitably in decline,” said Mr. Boardman, who is the dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.
So the Philadelphia Media Network is preparing for buyouts. And, like all newspaper groups, it is trying to reorganize its newsroom to provide its journalism in new forms that fit with new media consumption habits.
But that will not solve the threat that Facebook and Google pose to news providers. They have the user base — billions — and engineering prowess that no media company can match, which Stan Wischnowski, the Philadelphia Media Network executive editor, told me, is “putting democracy as a whole at risk because it has put at risk the kind of watchdog journalism we’ve been doing for 187 years.”
Facebook is aware of the problem, seems to care about it, and has been working with local papers and foundations — including the Lenfest Institute and the Knight Foundation — to help “support local news and promote independent media.”
It might, for instance, help efforts to increase subscriptions to newspapers with digital paywalls, while making them more adept online and on social platforms.
That brings me to one note of optimism, and it comes from my newspaper, which put up a paywall a few years ago and last week announced a successful quarterly earnings period. The paper reported 308,000 new digital-only subscriptions — certainly helped by President Trump’s regular, er, references to its journalism — and continued double-digit increases in online advertising revenue.
The company’s chief executive, Mark Thompson, told investors that The Times seemed to be benefiting from advertisers’ desire to avoid being adjacent to “dishonest or tawdry content.”
We can hope that’s the start of something more lasting, and not a temporary move to a safe harbor until the squall passes.
Facebook is working to do its part to help newspapers. Newspapers are trying to modernize. Now it is time for advertisers to do their part to support the people who make the quality content they want to be associated with, and to reconsider their headlong rush away from them.
That isn’t a plea for charity. It’s a plea for common sense. If current trends continue, there will be far less quality content to fill the big platforms advertisers are so in love with. They should think about what will be left.