Attention, print media: Content has always been free

I ran across this sentence in a New York Times article today about the expected Apple tablet.

Almost all media companies have run aground in the Internet Age as they gave away their print and video content on the Web and watched paying customers drift away as a result.

This makes that vein in my eyelid throb. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that these writers seem to think that readers only want content if it costs them money, but if it’s free they’re suddenly not interested. This sentence is emblematic of the intensely stupid way reporters write about the collapse of print media. They think that their content generates revenue—that readers pay their salaries, basically. In fact, content has always been free. What subscribers and newsstand buyers pay for issues doesn’t even cover the costs of printing and delivery. Content attracts eyeballs; print media makes money by charging advertisers to put their messages in front of those eyeballs. Producing content costs publishers money; ads pay the bills. It’s the exact same model as television, which everyone understands, but suddenly when we’re talking about pieces of paper instead of moving images, everyone gets confused. Or rather, reporters, who tend to have grand and romantic ideas about who they are and what they do, sell their reporter-centric version of the universe to readers, who are apparently tricked into believing that it’s true because it’s so often repeated.

But lisa over at Sociological Images put it so succinctly that I’m going to let her have the last word, with a few keywords swapped to make it about print media:

The real purpose of print media isn’t to inform you, but to collect a predictable audience that publishers can then sell to companies. Ads. Ads are the reason that journalism exists.