A Brief History of The Press

Does it inform, or propagandize? Does it challenge our opinions, or re-inforce pre-existing ones? Is it fair, or biased? Does it uphold our first amendment rights, or make a mockery of them?

For decades, the Press has had a fair share of critics and guardian angels. Journalists have been characterized alternatively as boogeymen, saviors, elitist gatekeepers, or selfless muckrakers.

Yet, what most characterizes the Press today is that its fundamental business model and distribution approach has been turned upside down by the rise of the World Wide Web and connected devices.

I’m sure you recently read about how Newsweek is ending its print magazine and going 100% digital in 2013. But I bet you read didn’t read about it on ink-and-paper. More likely: via the warm glow of your computer screen, mobile phone, or tablet.

In this article, we’ll review three decades of The Press, and look toward its digital future.

Manufacturers of Consent: 1990s #

My favorite book (and movie) from the “media criticism” phase of my life — the 1990s and early oughts — was Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Published in 1988, this book was written at the absolute height of the mass media’s success with traditional multicast forms: namely television, print and radio. It was written right before the Web would emerge and shake everything up.

The authors established a model for how the mass media operated. It involved a set of “editorial filters”. In essence, it argued that commercial media has certain economic needs, and to the extent these needs have to be satisfied, there are limits on the level of unbiased reporting it can do.

The authors combed through archives of print, TV news, and radio to understand the “media narratives” that would form around issues of the day.

Of particular interest were the most influential news organizations — national newspapers, such as The New York Times; national magazines, such as TIME and Newsweek; network channels such as CNN and NBC. The thesis of the book is that these organizations “set the media agenda” of each news cycle, and all other smaller outlets simply fell in line behind the stories articulated by the biggest mass media organizations.

This was the period of history where you weren’t crazy to rant about “media conspiracies”.  

I reflect on this period only to point out how far we have evolved beyond this period of history.

The New York Times certainly continues to be an influential newspaper, but to suggest that its newsroom sets the agenda of other Internet-only media companies (such as Mashable, Gawker, Alternet, etc.) is no longer fathomable. Rather than a concentrated set of content monopolists, we now have a vast and sprawling set of news, information, and niche topic sites, supplying a firehose of content every day.

You can try to manufacture consent in these times, but the savvy web consumer can very easily thwart your attempts.

Disintermediated Monopolists: 2000s #

The early 2000s saw the rise of the web and a creeping realization across the print media industry.

“We are no longer content monopolists. Anyone can publish content online.”

Young new media companies, such as Salon.com, tried to create a news magazine without a magazine. Early attempts were often rough — as advertising systems, business models, etc. were all in experimental stages. But one thing was for certain: access to a vast printing press was no longer a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

This period saw the rise of the “new printing press” of the web — content management systems — with WordPress, MovableType, Drupal, etc. powering the next generation of content sites. High-speed, low-cost publishing was born.

Print infrastructure — low-speed, high-cost publishing — was now seen as a liability.

Digital advertising systems exploded and multiplied. Google emerged and began to own major chunks of both the search advertising and display advertising markets online.

While some new media companies thrived in this environment, many print-focused companies failed to make the transition. Newspaper ad revenues declined 44% in 4 years; newsrooms were cut 25%.

Many readers (not all, but most) started to see newspapers and news magazines as stale versions of their web browser-enabled desktop PC. Good for an airport or doctor waiting room, but not for your daily dose of information.

Media insiders began to sing: “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Curators with Megaphones: 2010s #

This decade has only just begun, but we are now seeing the pieces fall into place of the new media industry, the “Modern Press”.

Neither the manufacturers of consent nor content monopolists, they are now curators with megaphones.

With print media moving to the “luxury aisle” of publishing and television news becoming a “real-time documentary” of events, the web has emerged as the primary place individuals go to get informed, entertained, distracted, and engaged in the events of their day.

Content is not culled and filtered by a single online editorial board. Rather than a top-down media narrative, there is a complicated web of interactions.

Consider this: Google News turned 10 on September 22. Over 4,500 English-language news sources appear in Google News, and there are over 50,000 sources globally.

Google doesn’t write a single piece of original news content, but its site has 1 billion weekly visitors.

My conclusion: The role of the biggest online media companies has shifted from gatekeeper to curator.  

Readers have no shortage of information. What they lack, however, is perspective. Media companies can help readers make sense of the massive firehose of content, opinions, reactions, and controversies and normalize it into comprehensible narratives, analyses or nuggets.

This work is justified because their audiences are big, eager to be informed, and expect the editors and writers to help them through the process. As I wrote on my blog recently, this was recognized twenty years ago, but is only coming true today.

It is therefore no surprise to me that Parse.ly is resonating well with editors and writers, who use Parse.ly Dash  to become more efficient at how they understand the various signals they receive on a daily basis — traffic patterns, social sharing activity, web-wide trends, and much more. This isn’t an easy job, and you need tool support to do it well.

The Future: Digital and Profitable? #

I’m optimistic about the future of media. It’s true: you can’t run a 1,000 person newsroom on digital ad dollars. The cost structures have changed.

But lean editorial operations that use the web to their advantage can turn a profit in the digital age. And indeed, some already have. Atlantic Media is now profitably digital-first and Gawker Media has seen profits soar.

What comes next? In my opinion: a data-driven, profitable future.

Readers will demand increased quality and increased curation. Audiences will learn to pay for these privileges; media companies will learn to charge for the service.

The Modern Press will get smart about using technology to its advantage. The editors and writers will move from vanity metrics to actionable insights.

And, I think, the ecosystem will get better. A greater number of opinions, an increased diversity of content, a wider range of information. More fluidity, less baggage. Progress, in the true spirit of the World Wide Web.

At Parse.ly, we aim to be a part of that future. We want to empower publishers as they embrace digital, while also offering an open vision for online news, information, and editorial judgment.

Why? Because we believe the entire ecosystem gets better if the key players collaborate in good faith and leverage technology to the fullest.

It’s true: the Modern Press bears little resemblance to the concentrated mass media of the 90’s. But, there’s no going back.

The future for online media has never been brighter. Let’s seize the opportunity.


Andrew Montalenti
Co-Founder & CTO, Parse.ly

Photo credits: Megaphone | Newsroom