Why Advertisers Are More Important Customers Than You

Opinion by John McManus

When buying a car or stereo, you bear the entire cost.† News is different.

You donít get billed for watching news on TV. Advertisers do. Even if you subscribe to a newspaper, you contribute only about 15% of the paperís revenue. Advertisers cover the rest.

This has the great benefit of making news accessible for all.

But whenever someone else picks up the tab, watch out. Advertisers pay for what they value. Quite properly, they want the eyeballs of potential customers--people with the money and inclination to buy their products. And they want it at the lowest price. Advertisers donít care whether we use news to be informed, or merely to rubber-neck other peopleís tragedies. News is just bait.

Hereís the problem. If the corporations that deliver our news try to maximize profit, they must add to the audience for real journalism those primarily interested in entertainment. Sure, you could make a reasonable profit just doing authentic journalism. But what company wants to settle for normal profits when it can have extraordinary returns?

So pressures from Wall Street and advertisers favor the inexpensive story that appeals to consumers across the region--the human interest tale, the violent one, the one that has buzz, the sports story that appeals to an important demographic. Newspaper sections that pique interest in travel, computers, real estate, wine, or cars make great ad platforms.

Alas, the most newsworthy stories often have the worst cost-benefit ratios. Investigative and trend reporting take reporters days instead of hours to produce. And important but dull stories turn-off the entertainment audience. A recent survey found that almost 8 of 10 American journalists say their newsrooms sometimes or often avoid important but dull stories.

There are other businesses in which quality isnít as profitable as pap. But none are as important to democracy.