Yet by the end of the 20th century, there were hardly any party-affiliated newspapers left. Many people assume it was a triumph of journalistic ethics over partisan politics. But in a paper published in the November 2011 edition of the American Political Science Review, Maria Petrova suggests that the real story is less inspiring.
“Newspapers’ independence was positively related to the local profitability of advertising,” she writes. “In the areas with faster-growing advertising markets, newspapers were more likely to be independent. The effect of advertising worked both through the entry of new newspapers and through changes in the affiliation of existing newspapers.”
In other words, the news found a more lucrative patron than political parties: advertisers. This business model, though, required a different news model. “If the profitability of advertising is high, then it is costly for media outlets to distort their news coverage in the direction desired by a subsidizing group,” Petrova writes. “Any deviation from the coverage that maximizes audience means the loss of audience and the loss of corresponding advertising revenues.”
That was, in many ways, a good thing. The “objective” newspaper was certainly preferable to the propaganda outlets that preceded it. But objectivity wasn’t just about the news. It was also about keeping audiences large and advertisers happy. It was part of a business strategy. That meant it could often induce a kind of studied inoffensiveness, an unwillingness to speak truths that audiences didn’t want to hear. Still, the post-advertising newspapers were trustworthy, independent sources of information. Before moving to the advertising model, they weren’t.
The news is not the only form of mass information that appears free while actually supporting itself through advertising. One of the most mind-bending facts of our information culture is that almost every major medium of information supports itself by advertising.
Radio? Advertisers. Magazines? Advertisers. Television? Advertisers. Google? Advertisers. Facebook? Advertisers. Twitter? Advertisers. Perhaps the only major exceptions to this rule are books, which are supported by sales, and Wikipedia, which is supported largely through donations.
From an economic standpoint, most information is simply a vehicle for advertising. We see the advertising as a distraction. But so far as the media company’s bottom line goes, the advertising is the point. Without the advertising, the information wouldn’t exist. So the history of information, in the United States at least, is the history of platforms that could support advertising.