The Media’s ‘Post-Advertising’ Future

Nationally and locally, the media (whether profit or non-profit) continue their significant transformation: the decline of print, the rise of (interactive) digital media, and the collapse of a middle-of-the-road partnership of boosterism between mediocre newspapers and middling officials.

Print’s doomed, and so is digital that merely repeats the same banal style of contemporary print.

Traditional forms of advertising are also doomed, as Derek Thompson explains in The Media’s Post-Advertising Future Is Also Its Past (“Why the news is going back to the 19th century”).

Thompson makes key points that apply in places big and small:

Advertising’s not enough:

One year ago, I described the media apocalypse coming for both digital upstarts and legacy brands. Vice and BuzzFeed had slashed their revenue projections by hundreds of millions of dollars, while The New York Times had announced a steep decline in advertising.

America’s past:

To understand the future of post-advertising media, let’s briefly consider its past. During a period of the early 19th century known as the “party press” era, newspapers relied on patrons. Those patrons were political parties (hence “party press”) that handed out printing contracts to their favorite editors or directly paid writers to publish vicious attacks against rivals.

That era’s journalism was hyper-political and deeply biased. But some historians believe that it was also more engaging. The number of newspapers in the United States grew from several dozen in the late 1700s to more than 1,200 in the 1830s.

Advertising’s influence:

It was advertising that led to the demise of the party press. Ads allowed newspapers to become independent of patronage and to build the modern standards of “objective” journalism. Advertising also led to a neutered, detached style of reporting—the “view from nowhere”—to avoid offending the biggest advertisers, such as department stores. Large ad-supported newspapers grew to become profitable behemoths, but they arguably emphasized milquetoast coverage over more colorful reader engagement.


Mid-century newspapers were as broad and unobjectionable as department stores, because department-store advertising was their business. News media of the future could be as messy, diverse, and riotously disputatious as their audiences, because directly monetizing them is the new central challenge of the news business.

The future: 

Every once in a while, somebody asks me whether we’ll ever get back to a place where the country can agree on a “single set of facts.” Those asking the question tend to be nostalgic for the 1950s, when they could count the number of television channels on one hand and rely on Walter Cronkite and a local media monopoly to control the flow of information.

That past is dead and irrecoverable. We’ve accelerated backward, as if in a time machine, whizzing past the flush 20th century to a more distant, more anxious, and, just maybe, more exciting past that is also the future.

The key lesson for publishers is to offer sharp (and sometimes sharp-tongued) writing, to see that content is king.  They’ll also have to rely not on advertising but on subscriptions or patronage (of others or oneself). Advertisers want calm, but calm in turbulent times is another word for avoidance, acquiescence, or appeasement.

Just as bloggers are a return via digital to America’s eighteenth-century pamphleteers, so newspapers will have to return via digital to the style of America’s nineteenth-century papers to survive.

It’s improbable that those who have adopted the mid-twentieth century style will carry on into the new era: their writing is dull, and their outlook mere babbittry.

For America, however, is outlook is favorable: we are a vigorous people who will meet the demands of a more vigorous era.

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