Journalism Will Survive Without Digital Ad Revenue

“The First Amendment may protect the press from government control, but it does not protect it from powerful corporations.”

That’s the assertion of Harley Duncan, editor-in-chief of The Flor-Ala, the student newspaper of the University of North Alabama. The corporations Duncan refers to are Facebook and Google, and the digital duopoly they represent. 

For a young professional in this industry, Duncan is quite insightful. He notes the glaring inconsistency in the world of digital journalism, as news outlets post massive layouts while Facebook posts record revenues. 

Over 2000 journalists lost their jobs in January and February,” Duncan writes, “after several digital and print media outlets such as BuzzFeed, VICE, Gannett and Huffington Post announced that their companies were scaling back the number of reporters in their newsrooms due to heavy losses in advertisement revenue.

“Reporters losing their jobs at newspapers is not uncommon in the digital age. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of newsroom jobs in local and regional U.S. newspapers dropped by 45 percent to 39,000, according to the Pew Research Center,” he continues.

“But the heavy cutbacks to purely digital media outlets that grew quickly as startups like BuzzFeed and VICE are a warning sign for other online publishers to think seriously about their business models and how they plan to adopt them.”

As these digital news outlets slashed staff, Facebook reported Q4 2018 revenues of $17 billion – all while being immersed in scandals and plummeting trust.

While Duncan clearly sees how broken the system is, he’s not wallowing. Instead, he speaks of finding business models that work for publishers, rather than relying on digital ad revenue to fill the coffers.

“One of the chief mistakes most digital publishers made was to believe that platform companies, and particularly Google and Facebook, had any serious interest in helping them save their publications,” Duncan writes.

He’s right. Facebook said so themselves at this month’s AAMC. So even while the industry is a bit adrift with all this crazy news of late, I’m encouraged by voices like Duncan’s. If the next generation of journalism is thinking about social media and digital advertising so clear-headedly, I see great things in store for this industry.

So we gave digital a try; it broke a lot of stuff. Now, publishers can get on with finding the publishing models that will work for the future. Journalism, as Duncan says, will persevere, and publishers will continue to find their way.

It’s a new age, folks, and it’s great when new voices in the industry can help us see things more clearly.