Forty years ago, just as the microprocessor was making itself known to people in their daily lives, your news and entertainment options were pretty simple. For most people, news meant the newspaper or the evening TV news. Some cities had competing papers, but most had just one by the 1980’s. Talk radio was just coming on-line, so there was some alternative for politics to the Progressive media outlets. Otherwise, your information about the world came through three narrow pipes, newspapers, TV and radio.
Even if you lived through those dark times, it is still hard to imagine what it must have been like to have such limited choices. If you wanted to interact with a guy like Mike Cernovich, you had to wait until he tried breaking into your tool shed. If you were into Alex Jones type stuff, it meant meeting a guy behind the library where he distributed his mimeographed newsletters. Despite these deprivations, people managed to get along. In fact, there’s good evidence that people were happier without the 24×7 information fire hose.
That’s the first little clue that maybe the proliferation of news and information channels is not entirety driven by demand. Another little clue is the fact that commercial on-line sites appealing to a national audience can’t turn a profit. The rounds of lay-offs at second-tier sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post suggest there is no way to make money selling content to a broad audience. Niche sites and small operators can make it work, but their model does not scale up. It requires a subsidy of some sort.
Of course, this tracks with what happened to the local newspaper. When they had a monopoly and dominated retail advertising, they could scrape by. Once exposed to market forces, the daily newspaper has continued to shrink. The ones that make it as a commercial enterprise are very small and the larger ones are the public relations department for an oligarch. In the near future, most small and mid-sized cities will find themselves without a newspaper at all, unless a local rich guy has one.
We’re probably on the cusp of seeing something similar happen with cable television and cable news channels. ESPN has been feeling the pinch as people cut the cord. In most markets, ESPN gets about seven dollars per month from all cable subscribers, whether they watch or not. Cord-cutting is threatening that old model, which means lots of these channels will go away. The most likely outcome is a few services like Amazon, Apple and Hulu that provide your content. No more channels, just categories.
The one area where contraction does not seem to be on the horizon is the amateur content side of things. Live streams are popping up all over. The number of dissident YouTube channels has grown to a point where it is hard to track them. Podcasts exist for every conceivable audience. Again, the small footprint guys can do well enough to make a living from it, but this model does not scale up. One guy making videos from home can do well enough to live. A company with overheads cannot make it work.
One reason internet media operations cannot scale up is that sharing is integral to selling ads for the site. Sharing stories, video and comments brings eyeballs to the site. The trouble is, the cost of pulling that off for a broad audience, exceeds the revenue from selling ads on the site, so the site has to go the paywall route. Paywall content cannot be shared, so this solution actually makes the problem worse. In other words, you can be a paywall site or an ad-based site, but you can’t be both and you can’t be big.
The exception, of course, is when an oligarch owns the operations. Carlos Slim subsidizes the New York Times, so he can guarantee positive coverage in America of himself and his allies in Lebanon and Mexico. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post for the same reason. Oligarchs have different motivations than companies, which is why corporate ownership is not a solution. Verizon expects to make money from the Huffington Post, which is why they are cutting costs and will eventually drop the site.
What all of this suggests is that we could be heading back to the old model of information, where the general public has a few large media pipes they can tap into for news, entertainment and information. If you’re a “prime” citizen, you get most of your information from Jeff Bezo approved sources. If you are an Apple Nazi, then you get your information from sources approved by the current degenerate running Apple. These pipes will not be commercially viable, but they will serve the political interests of their owners.
Small operators will exist, but as vanity projects and boutique businesses serving a niche audience. If you are really into the local sportsball team, you will have a pay site you can join where you get custom content just for that sportsball team. These kinds of sites have a proven model, where they have one or two owners, who keep the overheads low and stick to a very narrow audience. They can supplement their revenue by feeding the bigger players information, as long as they pose no threat to the big pipe.
Of course, given the outsourcing of censorship by the state to these commercial players, it means dissident content will be back to guys distributing mimeographed newsletters in the supermarket parking lot. Maybe the oligarchs will tolerate a limited amount of it on-line, as a relief valve, but they don’t appear to be the tolerant types. Even so, the public will be happy to return to their old ignorance, so returning to an updated version of the old model will probably be embraced, as long as it evolves slowly and gently.