500 Words, Day Nine

We're now acutely aware of how every web search, every page load, every click or "Like" or tweet is harvested, masticated, and reapplied so that we as individuals become saleable demographic and personalized data for advertisers and marketers. Clay Shirkey roundabout praises this state of things, Evgeny Morozov savages anyone who takes this as Utopia, Jared Lanier thinks this economy should go aboveground; Google rakes in the cash and can't wait to serve you ads on your Glass. The traditional news usually enjoys playing Simon-pure on this. but it shouldn't. Newsprint may not partake, but it may have birthed.

What we now call newspapers began in the U.S. as the "sixpenny" press, so named because, well, each issue cost a sixpenny. Which was a considerable regular cost in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As a result, the papers were purchased largely to be shared or on display at clubs and businesses, and the content reflected that. The papers were tools of commerce and were mainly filled with reports of shipping, deals, and the like – both the advertisements and what we'd now call editorial. It was all designed to send information to a particular, known type of reader.

In 1841, Horace Greeley shook this model up with his New York Tribune. This was the first of the "penny papers", so named because – come on, take a guess. At their fractional cost, the papers attracted the middle class for the first time, and this in turn forced a change in content; what went into the penny papers, editorial or advertising, had to appeal to a wider range of economic and political interests. "The penny press was novel," wrote Michael Schudson in Discovering the News, "not only in its economic organization and political stance [that is, not to a party], but in its content."

This, Schudson noted in passing, was possibly the alpha of the reader as a marketable product: "Until the 1830s, a newspaper provided a service to political parties and men of commerce; with the penny press a newspaper sold a product to a general readership and sold the readership to advertisers." The news well became more (we'd call today) lurid, with tales of everyday crime; the advertisers were pitched that the new middle class, hungry for commercial products, could be found browsing this exact content.

And lo, advertising has been the staple of news economics ever since. Well, until it hasn't been, so much.

Of course, scale and context matter. The news hasn't yet become a vestigial limb to an ad-selling service; a "real" paper, whether in print or online, places the reader's need for information first. The end game is not to have you buy something, whether you need it or not. Personalized data on your email, your location, your kinks, are not bundled for sale. You are an end for the newspaper. And though newspapers take some blame for making you a product, you're also a partner. Unlike for some... people.

And that's 500 words.