Lazy Journalists Aren't to Blame for Death of Print

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

This week's announcement that New York magazine was becoming a biweekly was greeted, in my profession, with the sort of cheer that might herald the announcement of a sewer line backup or a mid-honeymoon appendectomy.

New York magazine is very successful. Its editor is very well regarded, and it wins lots of awards. It gets scads of Web traffic. It publishes magazine features that win the admiration of fellow journalists and has also become practically ubiquitous on social media. And, apparently, it still can't pay the bills as a weekly publication. Hearing that New York magazine can't make it as a weekly is, for a professional journalist, rather like being told that your teddy bear has cancer. How is that even possible?

The answer is that the circulation of print magazines is declining, while advertising revenue has taken a suicidal plunge. Companies who wanted to inform people about their firm's activities used to have basically three choices: print media, television or radio. (OK, four if you count billboards.) These were all media companies, and they used the money corporations gave them to produce news.

Now companies have a lot more options. They have their own corporate website. They can try to create online ads that go viral, spreading news of their brand via social media. And, of course, there are lots and lots of Internet companies, such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., that companies can pay to spread their message. And what do those companies have in common? They are not, with small exceptions, in the business of producing content. Print media used to bundle content and distribution into one profitable package. Now that package has been unbundled -- and print media got left with the part that doesn't make much money.

But that's not the only reason we're in trouble, says John Judis. We're also suffering from an economic conundrum known as Baumol's cost disease:

On the progressive side, through the introduction of technology, the same number of auto workers become able to produce twice as many cars. Their wages also double, but the cost of production per car do not. In the stagnant sector, the amount of money a string quartet charges for its performance may double over time -- wages generally reflect workers' level of education and social status -- but the amount of time it takes the musicians to produce a piece of music -- their productivity -- does not. So the costs of production keep going up. The same goes for doctors who see and treat the same number of patients today as they did ten years ago, or kindergarten teachers who may even teach fewer students today than they did before. If they make more money, the costs of production go up. In the stagnant sector, business owners or governments can, of course, introduce some labor-saving technology -- for instance, computerized learning -- that lowers cost, but productivity in these sectors still does not approach that of the progressive sectors.

Two immediate effects of Baumol's Law are worth considering. First, the rise in the costs of stagnant services is translated into prices that rise faster than average. Thus, the costs of healthcare and higher education go up even faster than the rate of inflation. That may not matter to workers whose income is rising proportionately and who have to pay less for products from the progressive sectors, but it hurts workers at the lower end of the income scale whose wages may not be rising or even falling. They get priced out of a college education and decent health care.

The second effect is related to government spending, which is not really relevant to the news media.

The pithiest formulation of Baumol's cost disease is that it still takes just as many people to do a live performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 as it did in 1808, but you can't really expect the performers to live in a tiny, dark cottage with no central heating, refrigeration or modern health care. So the cost of attending the symphony has gone up relative to the price of, say, a sandwich.

I'm largely convinced by arguments about Baumol's cost disease in health care and education -- though even there, as economist Richard Vedder once pointed out to me, part of the reason it takes as many professors to teach students now as it did in 1880 is that professors like to teach classes in basically the same format that they used in 1880. But is this really the problem with journalism?

To be sure, it takes a lot of time to produce a long, reported feature -- you'd be amazed how much time. Just putting out one 2,500-word column for the Atlantic took more than a full workweek every month, because you have to interview a lot of people to produce a reported feature, and getting them to talk at double speed is hard.

Nonetheless, I'd say that in many ways, the productivity of journalists has increased dramatically since I was born. Interviews don't take any less time than they used to, but you have other ways to contact sources: e-mail, text, instant message. And those can be much faster than an interview (though it's much harder to get confrontational and drag out information they don't want to reveal). Just finding sources is amazingly easy compared with in the old days. If I want to write about a subject, I look up who seems to be doing a lot of work in that area, Google their professional details, and send an e-mail or pick up the phone. Thirty years ago, I'd have been limited by who I knew and whose phone numbers I had -- or forced to trek down to the library to page through back issues of academic journals.

And that doesn't even account for the explosion of commentary from people who aren't professional experts, but nonetheless offer immense insight into breaking-news issues and bring stories to our attention that we might not have seen. We certainly lost something when it became harder to finance reporters who spent six months writing one story -- but we have also gained quality in important ways. Much of the kind of commentary that I do about economics simply couldn't be done in 1985, for three reasons: It was too hard to find the kind of niche audience that wants public policy and business writing, heavy on the jargon; it was almost impossible to publish such writing at any length; and much of the data that I use every day couldn't be accessed, or easily accessed, by an ordinary working journalist.

And that doesn't even touch on the technology for writing and delivering our copy: I'd write a lot less if I had to type it out and mail it or phone it to the copy desk.

Meanwhile, our productivity has quickly grown in another way: It's a lot cheaper to distribute our stuff on the Web than it used to be, so we can reach more eyeballs. That's a gain in my productivity as surely as it would be if autoworkers could suddenly produce 50 percent more cars. I publish something like 10 times as many words as I could have as a print journalist, and those words are probably read by more people than would have read an economics column in an old-style newspaper.

No, I don't think that our problem is that our productivity as content producers isn't growing fast enough; it's that print media's value as ad distributors is falling faster than their writing productivity is growing. Baumol's cost disease may be a problem for other industries, but for print, the problem is simply that costs cannot fall fast enough to cope with the declining value of our ads.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net