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Media's Fatal Flaw: Ignoring the Mistakes of Newspapers

Wired reports last week, layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett landed like consecutive punches. The news signaled a difficult year ahead for an industry already mired in perpetual uncertainty. For some, the squeezing and shrinking of media companies might feel like more of the same, but not all layoffs are created equal. The downfall of Gannett—an exemplar of failed newspaper strategies—is instructive in navigating the future of digital media. Decades of monopolist thinking meant news organizations turned a blind eye to their audiences' needs. Newspapers, the story goes, made their first tragic mistake when the internet became publicly available by giving away their content for free. That fatal choice gave the public a sense that news had no value and disincentivized people from paying for content in the long run. But this commonly told cautionary tale oversimplifies the issue.

Media's real tragic mistake was that by the time the internet came around, it was treated as a place to dump content, a “shovelware” strategy. Treating the internet like a newspaper represented a serious misjudgment of the platform. The internet wasn’t just paper—it was also the paperboy. It was a content, platform, and distribution model all in one.

Newspapers were slow to realize that they had been operating in a pseudo-monopoly for years, one neatly defined by the limits of geography and technology. They fundamentally misunderstood the distribution role of the internet.

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