End of the Free Lunch

I’m part of that awkward, in-between cohort, a little too young to fit in with Gen Xers but — although we grew up with computers like our younger siblings, the much-loathed Millennials — still old enough to recall life before the Internet. The Oregon Trail Generation still remembers, dimly, the screech of a dial-up modem on a phone line that went into the wall.

When I was a kid, my family subscribed to three daily newspapers. My favorite was the Washington Post, because it had the most comic strips.

We didn’t buy newspapers because we wanted to read the news — that came free from radio or television. Buying newspapers was just what you did if you wanted to know what was going on: movie showtimes, restaurant hours, job listings, or who was selling a boat trailer.

Sure, there were other ways to get that information. With the Yellow Pages (remember those?) and some patience (remember that?) you could find just about anything. But it would take hours to gather up all the information conveniently dropped on your doorstep every morning. So we bought newspapers. And because we bought newspapers, so did advertisers.

Nobody minded if a little journalism happened along the way. It gave the whole enterprise a kind of public-spirited sheen, as if you were fulfilling a civic duty by skimming the “World” headlines before turning with a sigh to “Arts & Leisure” (in my case, for the comics).

As an Oregon Trail adult, I have never subscribed to a newspaper. I don’t recall having bought a newspaper since about 2003. In that time, newspaper revenues dropped by half while Google grew 1,452%. You, as my generation used to say, do the math.

Whenever I read another article (on the web) bemoaning the decline of newspapers, the end of journalism, and the collapse of civilization — these are, of course, written by journalists — I wonder what business they thought newspapers were in. Nobody ever paid for news. News is a commodity. Being the sole gatekeeper for information, now, that’s a good business to be in.

Today Google is the gatekeeper. So we go to Google, so go the advertisers, so no more subsidized journalism. Instead, we get subsidized email, calendars, word processors, spreadsheets, maps, directions, translations, web browsers, operating systems, and self-driving cars. All we had to give up was a little privacy.

And it’s not as if journalism is going to disappear completely. It will just have to get used to surviving like all the other unprofitable civic institutions: on the philanthropic whims of rich people.