Pick up a newspaper or magazine these days and you find yourself judging its health by the quantity of advertising. Harper’s, the Nation, the New Republic—they are pitifully bare of ads. “Page” (online, of course) through an old copy of the New Yorker, look up Edmund Wilson’s essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and feel the self-confidence of another age: almost three pages of ads for every column of text. Reading the magazine online brings out an analogy that a physical copy would obscure—the huge ads, dominating the text, remind you of nothing so much as a flashy website.
A big mystery of the internet has been why the online editions of newspapers and magazines can’t make money when, with huge skyscraper ads covering half the homepage, their websites so closely resemble the most successful publications of the past. These aren’t regular old newspaper ads either but what amount to TV ads—all the better, you’d think, since you can click through to buy the product on offer without picking up a phone. What’s more, the New York Times has ten times as many readers online as it does in print (15 million versus 1.5 million)! Amid all the anxiety about the future of journalism it’s easy to overlook the absurdity of the situation: the Times is going bankrupt—while showing more ads to more readers than ever before.
What happened? One standard answer is that advertisers overpaid for ad placement in the past, and now the Gray Lady, confronted with precise readership metrics, is finally getting paid the pittance she always deserved. This seems implausible: could perpetually rationalizing, efficiency-maximizing capitalism really have misjudged the efficacy of print advertising for more than a century? Another notion is that Google, by removing the ad men from the transaction, has dropped the glamorizing “sizzle” of the hard sell—an idea only Don Draper could buy.
The numbers don’t add up. As average internet usage has risen from six hours a week in 2004 to twelve hours a week in 2009, time spent with TV, radio, and magazines has held about steady. Part of this can be accounted for by the advent of workplace computers, which, as no one familiar with the devices will be surprised to learn, has not led to any revolution in productivity: thanks to YouTube, you can now watch old music videos and get paid. Once you get home, you add the new medium to the old ones. Over the past decade, while taking out a second mortgage, Americans also bought new flatscreen TVs and equipped the whole family with laptops and cell phones. Gathered round the dinner table, we can watch TV, check email, and text all at once. In this way the Blade Runner nightmare of a universe wallpapered with ads—huge corporate blimps projecting ads onto the walls of buildings—has given way to a nimbler and more domestic reality. Along with ads on every public surface there are now ads in your home—not just on the TV stand but atop our desks, on our laps, and in our pockets. The ads line our intimate communications on Gmail and Facebook, and with the development of the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad, they will before long infiltrate our books.
With so many new surfaces available to ads, newspapers will never make close to what they formerly earned, no matter how often we reload the Times website. As the space open to advertising continually expands, the value of each individual ad must correspondingly decline. Of course, ad revenue could go up if companies started increasing ad budgets, but over the past ninety years, through the rise of TV, radio, and the internet, total advertising spending has remained almost constant at between 2 and 3 percent of GDP. Ads themselves are premised on the infiniteness and malleability of human desire; ad budgets, on the other hand, recognize the relatively fixed and inelastic nature of disposable incomes.