…along with the “Democracy and Net Neutrality” Chapters…
Newspapers will never be the same. But what happens to democracy if the Web business model can’t fund journalism?
The new commercial ventures range from “content farms” to apps to major efforts to establish newsrooms and re-create a sense of news media online. The content farms, like Demand Media and Associated Content, have “embraced the attrition of the church-state boundary and turned it into a business model.” These firms hire freelancers to produce articles quickly and cheaply to respond to popular search terms, and then sell advertising to appear next to the article. The needs of advertisers drive the entire process. The key to commercial success is producing an immense amount of material inexpensively; the leading content farms can generate thousands of pieces of text and video on a daily basis.
As Michael Wolff puts it in Wired, “The top 10 Web sites accounted for 31 percent of US pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in 2006, and about 75 percent in 2010.” By 2012, according to the Web traffic measurer Experian hitwise, 35 percent of all Web visits now go to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Facebook. (The same firms get two thirds of online ad revenue.)
The grand irony of the Internet is that what was once regarded as an agent of diversity, choice, and competition has become an engine of monopoly. As to journalism, it is unclear if anyone can make a go of it commercially, beyond material aimed at the wealthy and the business community.
The second aspect of the capitalism-Internet nexus at the heart of the online journalism business model is an understanding that the wages paid to journalists can be slashed dramatically, while workloads can be increased to levels never before seen. Armstrong’s memo states that all of AOL’s journalistic employees will be required to produce “five to 10 stories per day.” Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times captured the essence of this requirement in his assessment of AOL’s 2011 purchase of the Huffington Post: “To grasp the Huffington Post’s business model, picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.” In the “new-media landscape,” he wrote, “it’s already clear that the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.”