Hearing some coverage of the Washington Post's sale on radio and television over the past couple of days, I heard a lot of clichés about newspaper struggling to adapt as readers moved online or newspapers losing audience to the Web. Obviously there is some of this going on. But it's pretty badly overstated. The really good American newspapers tend to have more readers than ever before, because the Internet turns out to be a really great way to distribute newspaper articles globally at low cost.
The problem isn't that the Web has disrupted the news business, it's that it's disrupted the advertising business.
It used to be that if you could attract a large audience for your publication, it was relatively easy to translate circulation into advertising dollars. That's because companies found it very challenging to convey information to the public. Which movies are playing and when and where? Which companies are hiring and for which positions? Who's got a dining room table he'd like to sell? Which big retailers are offering discounts this weekend and what's on sale? Television has always been great for major branding campaigns, but making a high-quality TV ad is expensive and time consuming. If you just want people to know some basic information, it's much faster and more practical to advertise in the local newspaper which updates daily.
Today a lot of that kind of thing happens on the Internet, but it happens in a whole different way. People search for things on Google. Craig's List has soaked up the classified advertising market. If Banana Republic has a sale they want to tell you about, they email their list.
The upshot of that is to make it much more difficult to make money by connecting readers to advertisers. That's been a huge problem for legacy newspapers, but it's also a problem for Web-native publications. This isn't just a question of the rates, but of the fact that whole big use cases for print advertising have been undercut by alternative Web-based means finding customers.