Return of the six penny press

Everybody will be watching Rupert Murdoch’s risky move to put his media properties behind a pay wall, with newspaper groups paying the most attention. The whole multi-faceted revenue model of the industry is collapsing, and many think directly charging for content — the subscription model — is the only way out.

But this is producing some interesting discussion among observers, including Chris Lynch, who argues that the demise of the traditional press will lead to what he calls a “Reader Élite.” Lynch sees this group as “a small group whose influence and effect on the future of content will be far more significant and long-lasting on media and democracy.”

Because while the Web itself democratizes information by providing the ability to easily access, publish and share information, it’s also contributing to a disparity in the quality of content that will lead to a “have and have-not” gap, much like we see today with our education system and health care policy. As free ad-based models fail online, those who wish to consume information produced by people whose sole job it is to gather and compile content will be a select few. Those people willing to subsidize content creators will dictate the future of truly investigative journalism as we know it.

I like what he’s saying, but I see it as a throwback to the days before advertising became the real revenue model of the newspaper industry, back to the mid 19th century and the dawn of the penny press. Until that time, the standard rate for a newspaper was around six pennies, hence, the six penny press. Here’s what happened, according to “A Brief History of Newspapers in the U.S.”:

The labor and lower classes were able to purchase a paper and read the news. As more people began buying papers throughout the country, news and journalism became more important overall.

Newspapers also began paying more attention to the public it served. They were quick to realize that the same information and news that interested the six cent public, did not interest the penny public. Newspapers used information from police stations, criminal courts and divorce courts to fill their paper and make it more appealing to their new public.

The heavy dependence on advertising as a major source of revenue was a main reason that the Penny Press was able to sell papers for a lower price than anyone else. Other papers relied heavily on subscriptions and daily sales. The price of paper and materials used to produce the newspapers also decreased making the production of the newspaper itself less expensive.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the penny press describes the tabloidy extent to which all media has fallen in the name of recruiting large audiences for advertising.  If it bleeds, it leads. Welcome to the penny press.

If major media companies put their products behind pay walls, surely they will cater to the haves of our world, a different sort of news that caters to keeping the haves in their position. That’s Chris Lynch’s “Reader Élite.” Advertising? Who cares? Let’s leave that for the trash that recruits the largest audience.

This is going to be interesting.

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