There does seem to be a few parallels between the rise of the early newspaper publishers of the 1800s and those of modern online publishing. However, I don’t believe that the Internet will be as easily tamed by a handful of large conglomerates, as was the case with traditional media, for two important reasons: (1) cost of production and (2) cost of distribution.
Traditional methods of producing newspapers and publications by way of a printing press are still prohibitive to most people even today. If you did happen to have access to a printing press at zero cost in the 1800s, the expenses associated with supplies (paper & ink) as well as labour, might still prohibit you from publishing your own newspaper.
For instance, Australian papers of the 1800s had a distinct advantage over those produced in the 1900s because the logistics and costs associated with distribution fell largely upon the government. In essence, the government was tasked to provide and subsidize the underlying infrastructure, sometimes at tremendous costs, to transport the paper by rail and coach. By 1890 the Australian Post Office was delivering 31 million papers at a loss of £40,000 per year. This method of paper delivery continued until it was abolished in 1901, and by doing so, put a lid on publishers who operated without sustainable business models.
It’s important to understand that the costs of starting a newspaper today are comparatively similar to those of the late 1800s. It was estimated that around £50,000 was required to start a Sydney daily in 1893 — about $1,500,000 by today’s money (Mayer, 1964, p. 16).
Given the costs associated with producing and distributing traditional paper-based publications, it’s understandable that companies tried to minimize operating costs and increase advertising income. One way of achieving these two goals was to consolidate newspapers under one roof — the rise of the conglomerates. Generally speaking, though, advertising revenues tend to be directly proportional to the size of the audience, and by increasing the readership one would expect to see an increase in profits.
The Internet has allowed us to shrink costs associated with distribution and production as well as expose the publication to billions of potential readers at the click of a button. Unlike traditional media, where costs of distribution increase in proportion with the number of subscribers, the Internet has enabled us to distribute to an international audience at virtually no cost. Paper-based media will never be able to compete with these economies of scale.
But that’s part of the problem isn’t it? The fact that just about anyone can be in the business and publish anything they want at any time gives rise to massive information overload without any quality control. Finding a credible and unbiased source in a slurry of blogs and opinion editorials will only get more difficult in the future.
Similarly, as much as the Internet has empowered the masses and given them a means to spew out content at an unprecedented rate, getting your publication noticed within search engines is only going to get more difficult as time goes by.
It’s true, corporate media might not have the capacity to buy up all of its competitors on the Internet as it did in the physical world, but there is certainly a window of opportunity for them to play dirty with the search engine community and render certain publications invisible to the audience.
The era of ‘cowboy’ journalism, gunfight and all, is only just beginning.
[title image from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West poster during his tour of Great Britain, c. 1904]