‘Old’ Media has Been Dying Forever, Yet it Holds On

Ted Gioia of The Honest Broker argues that legacy media is being displaced by social media or other alternative media:

Maybe you can already figure out how this story ends. Every year, legacy media outlets shrink a little more, and alternative channels grow a lot more. Just do a simple trendline extrapolation, and draw your own conclusions.

He keeps making this “old media is dying” refrain, not just in this article but earlier ones too. But I don’t see it. It’s just another example of crying wolf, “this time the media is dying…we really mean it!”

It’s worth reminding that proclamations of the death of the media are as old as the media itself. A 1998 article by Jakob Nielsen, “The End of Legacy Media (Newspapers, Magazines, Books, TV Networks),” predicted that within ten years all content would be digital and print papers would cease to exist, writing “Most current media formats will die and be replaced with an integrated Web medium in five to ten years.”

A screenshot of a Google search shows a plethora of similar articles from 2005-2009:

Or an La Times story from 1991 about falling newspaper subscriptions due to changing reading habits:

The statistics on newspaper readership are much less ambiguous and much grimmer. According to the University of Maryland time-use studies, the share of the adult population that “read a newspaper yesterday” has declined from 85% in 1946 to 73% in 1965 to 55% in 1985. The numbers on per capita newspaper circulation and the percentage of American homes that receive a daily newspaper form similar graphs–graphs you could ski down.

“What has changed is the strength of the habit of reading a newspaper,” notes Al Gollin of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. “It used to be one of those things that almost everybody did.” No more. Americans on average now read newspapers much less frequently than they did 30 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

Sound familiar?

And yet the legacy media keeps holding on in spite of changing reader tastes, new mediums of information (e.g. the internet), unending stories of media layoffs, shorter attention spans, etc. and everything else that should have killed it off by now. Sure, some newspapers fail, but this to be expected in any industry. Yes, the media has layoffs, but so does every industry, including tech. In spite of big tech companies generally being very profitable, there were major layoffs at Meta in 2022.

I think pundits, Mr. Gioia included, underestimate the ability or plasticity of old media to adapt to the times and find new revenue sources, or to stay relevant. Not to mention, technology does not exist in a vacuum: a technology benefits more than just consumers of said technology, but also seemingly unrelated technologies and industries. Video was supposed to kill the radio star, but then came satellite radio and podcasts. It was new technologies that breathed life into these old ones.

Maybe from 2005-2010 it seemed like legacy media was dying for good due to the internet, but then the rise of social networking actually benefited legacy media, because all of a sudden articles could go viral in a way that had not been possible in the past, such as CNN, WSJ, or NYTs articles being shared millions of times on Facebook and Twitter. Legacy media was able to seize being an authority source, and thus have its articles go viral on social media. When a major story breaks online, such as a school shooting or an indictment of a former president, people want to share and read the CNN or NYTs version of it, not some tiny indy publication.

Not just social media, but the same for Google, which is a major driver of traffic to legacy media companies, such as CNN and The Washington Post as shown below. This is yet another example of an old technology or medium piggybacking on the success of a new one:

As for being stale or sclerotic, legacy media was quick to capitalize on apps and online subscriptions, wasting no time in the early 2010s setting up paywalls, running online ads, and installing social media ‘like/share’ widgets. Same for courting controversy, such as taking sides on ‘hot button’ issues such as wokeness, ‘defund the police’, ‘cancel culture’, etc. The NYTs and Washington Post dove head-first into these controversial topics as they were percolating online, instead of being left out of the debate. In the past, blogs and other independent publications would have filled this niche.

I recall the amusing story of YouTube star PewDiePie who got into a dispute with legacy media. He later told how the Wall Street Journal came “knocking on my home address offering me ‘a chance and platform to defend myself.’”

This was a ridiculous offer—because PewDiePie had seven times as many subscribers as the Wall Street Journal. Of course, that was a few years ago, and the gap is much larger now.

So if you want to know the benefits of disintermediation, just mull over these numbers.

PewDiePie subscribers (current): 111 million

Wall Street Journal subscribers (current): 3.7 million

Except that the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has 3.7 million (presumably) paying subscribers, probably many of them high-net worth individuals, compared to 111 million YouTube million subscribers who merely pressed a ‘subscribe’ button, and may not even be human or represent real people (fake/bot subscribers are a thing). It’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison here.

Sure, PewDiePie is hugely poplar, but this is not the same as having the sort of influence that the WSJ has. For example, a 2015 WSJ expose by an insider overnight brought down a multi-billion dollar biotech start-up, whose name you may be familiar with, that being Theranos. So much for losing influence.