“Journalism is dead in America…”
---Sean Hannity 2009
Journalism may not be completely dead yet. However, the industry in aggregate seems to be dying. Newspapers are in steep decline; and the cornerstones of the craft (magazines & periodicals) are locked in a death spiral. Similarly, local television news programs have experienced dramatic declines in viewership for more than a decade; and revenues for radio stations with all-news formats have flatlined.
The explosion of social media in recent years has undoubtedly disrupted the news and publishing industries. These days, online news sources are a staple for a vast majority of adults in the United States. In fact, 43% of U.S. adults turned to social media, news websites and news apps for political news this past election cycle. In parallel, online media subscriptions grew at an astonishing 300% rate last year.
So why are so many industry bellwethers floundering in an era where content is supposedly “King”? The sad truth of the matter is that publishers have largely abandoned their tradecraft. Most bought in to the assertion that “the broad opportunities…involve supplying information or entertainment“ while largely neglecting the other two pillars of their art: educating & enlightening their audiences. Additionally, many unwittingly bought into the assertion that their audiences “must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will.” Quantity over quality seems to be the manta; and publishers are paying a hefty price for their shoddy craftsmanship.
Make no mistake, the digital publishing realm is a world within itself. Cyberspace happens to be real estate; and publishers failed to fortify their online kingdoms when they colonized their territories. Metaphorically speaking, they entrusted pirates to patrol their waters at the outset. Gradually, the pirates established strongholds within the publishing castles and extorted their naivety. Today, these pirates hold the publishing world hostage; charging those they deem fit a king’s ransom to publicize and distribute their wares.
By pirates, we are referring to search engines, social media companies and content aggregators (specifically: the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube). Perniciously, they have a stranglehold on the distribution and circulation of Web content. In parallel, these same companies also control a lion’s share of the advertising market within the online publishing world. Like robber barons of the 19th Century, the tech giants have created monopolistic empires of their own, decimating the publishing industry and leaving behind a wake of public discord in the process.
We will examine the genesis of the present situation in this article. We will also explain why the status quo has become a threat to democracies around the world as well as our own Constitutional Republic here at home. Lastly, we will offer our thoughts on how to best balance the playing field and hopefully restore public trust in our media institutions.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
A freefall within the publishing industry has been evident for years. In 2013, U.S. newspaper circulation fell below the lowest level in recorded history as digital consumption became more mainstream. According to PEW Research, the shrinkage has continued at an astounding rate since then. In 2018 for example, the combined circulation for print & digital daily newspapers in the U.S. fell 8% for weekdays and 9% for Sundays. Sadly, the future looks even bleaker for publishers if present trends continue.
Revenue for magazine and periodical publishers was expected to decline 13.8% in 2020 according to IBISWorld. As revenues from print advertising dry up, digital revenue streams simply are not accounting for the difference. This isn’t surprising given that the bulk of revenues generated through digital advertising (52%) now go to Facebook and Google rather than to the publishers themselves.
Picture cyberspace as a solar system and the World Wide Web as a planet within that system. Now imagine you were a publishing mogul looking to set up shop on that planet. You probably would not dump your wares onto the surface of that planet without understanding and testing the terrain first. Yet, this is essentially what a vast majority of publishers and news outlets did when they launched their online publishing ventures.
The surface of the Web itself happens to be fluid and transparent. Adroit travelers within cyberspace are able to see everything on the surface web at quick glance; meaning that it’s ripe for piracy and theft. Much like the surface of the Earth; most of the solid ground on the Web lies well below the planetary surface.
In aggregate, the Web’s subterranean layers are known the deep web which is often ignorantly conflated with the dark web - the Web’s murky undersurface that is permeated with illegal content. That said, the deep Web is where the bedrock lies. In fact, around 90% of the world’s websites exist within the deep web rather than the surface web. Sites within the deep web are not indexed by the search engines and oftentimes aren’t made visible to the public in general. Additionally, websites within the deep web are frequently encrypted to ward off pirating operations as well as hackers.
When publishers first launched into cyberspace and claimed their domains on the Web, hackers were a clear predatory threat. Consequently, protocols were quickly established within the surface web to deter hackers. Savvy tech pirates on the other hand, were lying in wait. Many of them appeared innocuous on the surface. They had a native understanding of the Web’s subterrain and were often collegial toward publishers. However, business ventures are a combination of war and sport and pirate captains soon prepared their vessels to perform stealth forms of grand larceny within the publishing world.
Houston, We Have a Problem
The original champions of the World Wide Web were long on dreams and big on aspirations. In a 1994 speech to the International Telecommunications Union, then Vice-President Al Gore remarked:
Here, Mr. Gates fully recognized the viability of the emerging markets as well as their enormous potential for scale. He also implied that social upheaval of some sort would be inevitable as macroeconomic principles played out over time. In those days, cyberspace was much like the North American continent during the 17th century. In effect, the World Wide Web would be an ethereal fountain for new raw materials with computer code comprising the basic elements.
Navigational maps would be required to conquer the terrain. They would be required to link people and institutions together; and to effectively promote trade. Also, library systems would have to be built to warehouse the perpetually renewing supply of maps. Inevitably, something along the lines of the Great Library of Alexandria would need to be built for the public at large to catch on and colonize the Web.
Intuitively, one would think that visionaries and architects devising the National Information Infrastructure would have realized this at the outset and built one into their rollout plan. Yet, it was left entirely up to the private sector to develop, build, and maintain them instead. Consequently, rudimentary libraries sprouted up throughout the 1990s. They are of course known as search engines today.
The first of these search engines was named Archie. Archie made its debut in 1990. That said, it was more of a simple card catalog than an exploratory tool for Web. Archie was followed by W3Catalog and JumpStation in 1993. Jumpstation was the first search engine to combine crawling, indexing and searching all into one package; features which are now industry standards. This innovation was followed in 1994 by Webcrawler; the first tool that enabled visitors to search for any word on any webpage, which is also of course an industry standard today.
During the latter part of the decade, competition within this category heated up as Web usage became more mainstream. Several search engines debuted during this period vying for popularity. Among the better known: Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, and AltaVista.
Then in 2000, Google gained traction. The brainchild of entrepreneurs Sergey Brin and Larry Page quickly rose to the forefront of the market largely due to their sophisticated PageRank system as well as their novel paid-search capabilities. Both were game-changing features as far as e-commerce was concerned, especially for publishers, entertainment companies and media outlets. For that matter, an argument can be made for the whole of western civilization as well.
The Booty Call
Mr. Brin & Mr. Page met as undergrads at Stanford University. Mathematical geniuses armed with computer science backgrounds; they set out to change our world by effectively organizing and cataloging the World Wide Web. A sophisticated mathematical gear system was at the heart of their solution, better known today as algorithms. The machinery they developed was groundbreaking to say the least.
From the outset, Google’s product had an intuitive end-user interface and an engaging demeanor. It was also fast and efficient. Beyond that, Brin & Page’s search engine was generations ahead of their competition mechanically. Both factors were enormous competitive advantages and they quickly leaped to the top of the market. The company has remained there ever since; driving the most of their competitors into the graveyard.
Being one of the greatest free-market success stories of all-time, stories about the Google’s origin, founding and history are widely known. Most point to their earnest desire to change the world for the better during the company's nascency. Journalist Steven Levy provides such an example in his book: In the Plex, recounting the origin of the Google’s infamous slogan ‘Don’t Be Evil’:
And while Google’s founders insist that they were not moved by money, they were entrepreneurs at heart and ingrained their passion for success within the corporate culture. Regardless of their profit motives, competing to win has always been a strategic imperative for the company. As Mr. Brin once remarked: “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”
The company understood from the outset that the World Wide Web happens to be a world of real estate. A world comprised of the elements visible to the naked eye and measured by occupancy. Over time, the search industry’s 800-pound gorilla has effectively built locks on both.
Google’s domain is arguably the most valuable piece of cyber real estate ever created as far as occupancy is concerned. More people visit Google every single day than other site on the web. They also spend a great deal of time there. An average of 16 minutes per day; taking in over 17 pageviews during their stays.
Early in the game, publishers and the media seemingly thought allowing Search Engines like Google to freely crawl, catalog, and index everything they created was a wise idea. Time has proven them wrong. At least for the ones that consistently fail to appear above the fold on the first page of Google’s search results that is. Google has controlled over 86% of the global Search market for well over a decade. On top of that, they presently have a stranglehold on the industry’s advertising market – estimated at over 80% for 2019. In short, they’ve effectively monopolized both industries.
Make no mistake, free press in America is no longer free. In effect, the media and the press have acquiesced to a sophisticated band of pirates who pilfer their profits and arbitrarily doll out their creative assets to the public. Online publicity has essentially become a pay-for-play racket over the years. Arguably, along the same lines as the Payola schemes that have scandalized the music industry off and on again since the 1950s. Like a mafioso godfather, Google demands tribute. And the publishing world willingly lines up to kiss their ring.
Mr. Brin & Mr. Page no doubt had a sense of humor about them when they christened the first pirate vessel. They originally dubbed Google’s new technology BackRub – a tongue-in-cheek phrase used within underworld establishments known to supply Happy Endings to their clientele. God knows if they had this in mind when they set out to conquer the Internet. That said, the monopoly they spawned within their dorm rooms has since grown to become the most powerful member of an oligarchical information technology syndicate. A syndicate that has grown so powerful that it now threatens the very fabric of free society.
What We’ve Got Here Is Failure to Communicate
It is little wonder that Western civilization began to fragment almost in parallel with Mr. Gore’s 1994 speech. Competition within the news and entertainment industries went into hyperdrive with the advent of the Web. With the internet, fringe publications were no longer hidden behind the counter of a local newsstand. Instead, they were right out in the open for all the world to see. Everything from hardcore pornography and violent videotaped crimes; to exploitative human tragedy exposes and even narcissistic rantings of deranged sycophants. The public gobbled this garbage up like kids in a candy store.
In other words, Big Tech assumed the role of moral arbiters on behalf of the Democrat Party and their organized affiliates. If you happen to be a student of 20th century history, this should send shivers up your spine. This is exactly what fascist and communist regimes of that period did with big industry. Both deemed themselves moral arbiters and distorted the truth. The atrocities committed by both regimes speak for themselves.
We are seeing more of the same today out of big tech. This time however, minerals are not the coveted commodity. Like the Nazi and Soviet regimes of Europe, Silicon Valley pirate captains have settled into an unholy alliance with China’s fascist regime. They tilted the 2020 elections here in the United States toward the left; and the country is headed toward communism. Free market be damned for all eternity if this were to happen.
All that Glitters Isn’t Gold
Vice President Gore delivered a second speech on the UCLA campus in 1994 where he remarked that: “the future of language is in our hands. Or put more broadly, the future of communications.” He went on to share a parable by author Toni Morrison:
Ironically, mass communications have not been nurtured. The buckshot approach taken by the Clinton Administration to catalog and index the Internet backfired on the public. Foolishly, politicians allowed carnivores into Publisher’s hen houses. Obliviously or corruptly, they have taken handouts from Big Tech fat cats and overlooked the best interests of their constituency. Our inalienable rights are now being crushed or smothered by capitalist wolves in the hands of greedy communist pigs largely in consequence.
The time has come to break up the Big Tech’s four horsemen for the good of the nation and all of humanity. For starters, Congress must recognize what Amazon, Facebook, Google & Twitter broker: information capital. Beyond the inherent threat to your personal liberties and guaranteed freedoms, there is a greater threat to our national security interests if they continue to remain unchecked.
With the exception of Amazon, Big Tech’s horsemen effectively serve as public utilities in the digital age. Facebook being akin to Bell Telephone and National Public Radio; and Twitter being a worldwide “town square” so to speak. Similarly, Google has arguably become America’s mass transit system within the cyber world. Like robber barons of the industrial era, the top brass within these companies effectively dictate and control the flow of information from town to town and city to city across the country.
Beyond the breakup, re-formulating America's communications infrastructure will require an innovative approach. Re-tooling our National Library system seems a natural place to start. The information superhighway needs a Grand Central Station; and the National Library has that potential if properly scaled.
Author: Erik Gagnon - Managing Partner, Chi Rho Consulting