Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why have newspapers become so bad? There is a reason: it is another case of the "Seneca effect"

You probably have noticed the decline in the quality of newspapers. Actually, it is not just a decline, it is a true collapse: news are not verified, legends are published as fact, important issues are neglected in favor of gossip and let's say nothing about the way some crucial problems such as climate change are neglected and mispresented. There is a reason: as you see in the figure above, newspapers have rapidly lost a large fraction of their revenues in the form of advertising. In short, newspapers are a living example of what I called the "Seneca Effect", which states that "ruin is rapid." (Image by Mark J. Perry from the American Enterprise Institute.)

By now, you may think that I am becoming a bit fixated with this idea of the "Seneca Cliff", but the image above is so impressive that I just had to show it here. In previous posts, I described how decline could be much faster than growth (the "Seneca Effect" - see the graph on the left) in several historical cases involving the exploitation of natural resources. In these cases, the rapid collapse is the result of the attempt of operators to keep production constant or increasing, and hence overexploiting the resource.

The case of newspaper advertising looks similar. The decline of newspaper quality during the past few years has been startling and it can be explained by the graph at the beginning of this post. Advertising revenues for newspapers collapsed badly, "Seneca-style,"  starting with the early 2000s. This collapse took place while total advertising revenues actually increased; so, the data have to be interpreted as the result of the diffusion of the Internet. Apparently, Web advertising on social media and other channels provided better performance/cost ratios than newspaper related advertising and it is there that the advertising money went. And, without the money that came from advertising, it is no surprise that the quality of newspapers collapsed as well.

So, we have here a good illustration of the ubiquity of Seneca's observation that "the way to ruin is rapid", but also a different case than that of the exploitation of natural resources as - say - shale oil (which is, by the way, starting to show a very nice "Seneca Cliff"). Nevertheless, all human economic activities have to do with the exploitation of resources of some kind. In this case, the resource being exploited is the capital available for advertising.

We can see the effect of the competition between Social Media and Newspaper advertising as a classic case of the "Gause's law of competitive exclusion", well known in biology. It says that when two species compete for the same resources, one will usually go extinct. This is what's happening with the two "species" which are Newspapers and Social Media - the first is probably going to be extinct soon.

Below, I'll show you a simple model on how we can simulate the competition of  two species for the same resource. But, intuitively, we do expect that the collapse of the less efficient species should be abrupt. We can imagine that the old species (say, foxes) had found some kind of homeostatic equilibrium with its source of food (say, rabbits) and then, suddenly, the new species appears (say, wolves) which catches rabbits much faster and more efficiently. It is disastrous for the foxes, which go extinct quickly.

This is not just theory, think of what happened when the Europeans arrived in the Americas with their firearms. It was a disaster for the local people - less efficient than the Europeans in the art of war. Not a nice story to tell but, unfortunately, this seems to be the way the world works.


A simple model of Gause's law applied to advertising.
by Ugo Bardi

Here is the model's representation made using the Vensim software:

The model is built using simple assumptions which make it similar to the well known "Lotka-Volterra" (LV) model. It starts from an "advertising capital" (rabbits in the LV model), which is consumed by capital specifically dedicated to internet advertising (foxes in the LV model), assuming also that growth is quadratically damped, as it is often done in the LV model. There are two species in competition, Web and Newspaper advertising ("foxes" and "wolves") of which one starts with much lower numbers but with a higher efficiency of capital consumption. This second species appears as a "pulse" at about one third of the simulation. The result is that the first species (Newspaper advertising) reaches homeostasis, but collapses rapidly when the second species (Web advertising) enters into play. Here are the results of the investments on newspaper advertising

This is just a stab of a model, put together in an hour or so. Don't take it for more than that, but I think it does capture something of the system being modeled. For details write to me at ugo.bardi(zingything) I can also send to you the complete model.


  1. Ugo, thanks for this update on the Seneca effect. I think the effect of the drop
    in advertisement revenues was noticeable in that the quality of newspapers
    has dropped sharply in tandem. I witnessed how for example the Los Angeles
    Times lost it all around 2005 or so. Almost the entire staff was fired by the new
    owners and the quality became substandard. I stopped buying it. Now I am
    seeing German newspapers turning out really superficial articles that I do not
    want to read any one of them any more. Sad to say, but only blogs and the
    occasional online newspaper provide the necessary background information.


    1. Oh, yes, this is an obvious consequence of the declining revenues. Also in Italy, the quality of the newspaper is sinking like a rock. The latest disaster was the announcement of an attack of the Egyptian army against Isis in Lybia which turned out to have been invented from whole cloth. It had never happened!

    2. I am glad to hear these concerned being aired. I thought I was crazy... the New York Times now regularly cites Twitter as a source of news and runs stories about completely vapid and superficial things, while ignoring important international affairs. They gave me a free subscription for a month, but I've become so disgusted that I deleted my bookmark to their website this morning.

      Back when profits were going off the Seneca cliff, people seemed to assume that all the newspapers would be shut down (c.f. the Flash film EPIC 2014). But what we have is actually worse than that: newspapers still exist but have turned into empty shells of their former selves.

  2. On the upside, this is good for the Alternative Newz Sources on the Blogosphere.

    Every reader lost by WaPo and the NYT is a new reader for the Diner & Resource Limits! :)

    Not to mention the Vineyard of the Saker. ;)

  3. The road to ruin is rapid is a fancy way of saying death kills. Any complex system shall be brought down when an activity essential to its survival terminates. Then what we are left with is nothing more than a dramatic realization of the obvious. There is no magic, we have only an expression of the inevitable.

    So what Seneca precipice do we negotiate with the death of newspapers?

    "The use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses but very little his fellow-laborer, the ox, in the exercise of his mental faculties..."

    Q: So what complex system shall crash with our loss of letters?

    A: Civilization !!!!

    The memory provided by newspapers and their printed words is not replaced by the internet with its printed word. Memory is lost. Words on the Internet are too malleable, electrons too nimble and fickle. Todays truth will not be tomorrows truth should powers that be whimsically decide. The easy edits of a computer keyboard destroys the stubborn honesty and tenacity which ink on paper provides. Human memory soon dissipates and corrupts. Now with the help of electrons and the eschewment of printed ink; malleable human memory is not curtailed but is enhanced to a state of complete obfuscation.

    1. k-dog & all
      Where did we read some of that before?
      Though it is time-honoured practice it is no good complaining about the quality these days of the staff and the lower orders.

      "O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant, The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters, ..."

      My guess is the loss of a civilisation - and we have plenty of previous examples - is what kills the men of letters. And just now books head to the dumpster as Libraries go over the Seneca Cliff. Somehow this bothers me more than Newspapers.


  4. The demise of newspaper advertising and the likely severe decline of newspapers in general is bad news. It won't be long, perhaps as soon as a few decades, that industrial civilization will start to show obvious signs of deterioration, with brownouts, blackouts and the increasing cost of electricity. It won't happen at the same rate everywhere of course, and some regions might last much longer than others. In any case, the internet itself is likely to decline too, as John Michael Greer has predicted. Once the internet becomes more expensive or unavailable, how will people get their news if the newspapers are gone? It's a sobering thought.

  5. A few decades ago, I was living in Chicago's far North Side while working in the far South Side, some 25 miles away. Often I commuted on the L, which took almost a half hour longer than by car. 5 young men, all recent college graduates, asked me at lunch if it was boring. I told them I always had more than enough interesting books to read: at the time I was reading "The History of Henry Esmond" by William Makepeace Thackeray.

    They had never heard of the book or the author. I said the same author had written "Vanity Fair". They had never heard of that, either, altho several mentioned having seen the magazine. Then I said that the book I was reading mentioned the famous book by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; yeah, they never heard of it before, but several said the name did sound familiar.

    Seeing my shock, they laughed. Reading books is no longer all that useful nowdays, what with the internet and all that. Seeing my eyes bulge and my jaw drop, one of them said that as he was "Italian" (meaning ancestors, a surname and a taste for pizza, I suppose), he knew there was an Italian guy long ago who wrote a book called "Paradise Lost".

    I don't know what is scarier, that people like these nice young men are allowed to vote, or that they are college graduates!

  6. Excellent post, as always - one of the sanest blogs on the planet if one may say so.

    It is very sad and rather disturbing to observe the decline of the once trusted quality broadsheet newspapers in England -The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, etc. This is true whether the paper in question is deemed to be of the Left or the Right.

    For instance, the material submitted by 'foreign correspondents' (a motley crew now, often, I suspect, merely teachers of English as a foreign language trying to earn a few extra euros) is either hopelessly inaccurate or utterly trivial.

    And one often reads propaganda disguised as objective reporting, or - quite as bad - uncritical transcripts of the propaganda uttered by state officials, politicians and so on. This has become very apparent in the case of the Ukraine and relations with Russia.

    The intellectual level of these papers is now very low: perhaps in itself a fair reflection of a degraded university system and quite satisfactory to most younger readers, if they exist?

    End of a civilization.

    1. Nothing to do with the university system. Sure, they employ quite a lot of graduates, but they are either set to reporting celebrity gossip, trials etc, or hothoused and forced to produce more stories in an hour than old school journalists did in a day. Thus quality suffers.

      "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies is the book you should read.
      The relevant point is that by the 1990's all the newspapers were owned by people and corporations who had only the bottom line as their target, which led to cuts in the resources necessary to actually do good journalism, from funding local on the spot people to giving journalists time to go and interview people in person, rather than phone them up and ask for a quote.
      Now, the graph at the top of this post is for the USA, not the UK, which is what Davies' book is concerned with. But the rise in ad revenue in the 1990's corresponds to the profit maximisation period in the UK, with determined drives made to get more money in whatever way possible, including the advertising revenues.
      Of course as time went on, people realised the newspapers were shit, and stopped buying them, but it should be remembered that the fall in quality began before most people had heard of the internet and certainly before it began to have any effect on newspaper sales. But it left them weakened and more easily damaged by the internet when it really got going.

      I suspect there are comparisons to resource crises, e.g. fishing - you try to maximise catches, the fish get smaller and of lower quality, then something like climate change comes along and wipes everything out. Mind you we're capable of wiping fisheries out solely by overfishing, so perhaps that doesn't match as well.

  7. Marc B

    The deterioration is well under way everywhere. The closer you look the more you find.

    Aging US Power Grid Blacks Out More Than Any Other Developed Nation

    The American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card, D+

  8. Ugo, I love your blog, and you are generally very accurate in your pronouncements. This time, however, I have a bit of a bone to pick, because I believe that you haven't done your research in an area on which you commented. To wit, you state:

    "...think of what happened when the Europeans arrived in the Americas with their firearms. It was a disaster for the local people - less efficient than the Europeans in the art of war."

    This is a widely believed myth. I'd suggest you pick up a copy of Charles Mann's 1491, where you will learn that the indigenous population's low-tech weaponry were almost certainly more than a match for the rudimentary firearms of the time. The bow and arrow was not only more accurate, but could also outdistance the guns of the time. In fact, there is every reason to believe that in anything approaching a 'fair fight,' the Europeans would have lost.

    In short, Mann presents a solid chain of evidence and logic that it was not the 'superior technology' of the Europeans at all that led to the catastrophic demise of the indigenous Indians, but many other factors, chief among them, of course, the illnesses that the Europeans brought with them to which the natives had no immunity. But there were also sociological and political factors at play. All of which have more explanatory power than the 'firearms and technology' argument.

    All that said, terrific post, further confirmation of the broad applicability of the Seneca cliff - keep 'em coming! :)

  9. Thanks for this comment, gwizard, and you have a good point. Indeed, if we refer to Columbus' time and about one century afterward, firearm technology was still primitive. Matchlock guns may not have been a match for a good bow. (I am an archer myself and I have some feeling about what a bow can do and cannot do). Still, when Hernan Cortez conquered Mexico, in the 16th century he probably had nothing better than matchlock guns. My feeling is that the superiority of European weapons was not so much in the weapons themselves, but in their tactical use. Already at that time, the Europeans had managed the art of synchronized fire and of mutual support of arquebusiers and pikemen. It is likely that the American natives never mastered that - at least if we think of the description that Jared Diamond gives to us of tribal warfare in his "The World until Yesterday." Bows are awesome weapons, but must be used in a coordinated manner, otherwise they are worst than useless.

    So, I think there existed a definite superiority of European military technology and that it was not just a question of number superiority created by epidemics. But, of course, we were not there, so we can only ruminate in our minds how things must have been. What a disaster it was! And think that, in principle, it could have been perfectly possible for the Atzec Empire to defeat the Spanish; just a little more coordination, they had numbers on their side..... And what a different world could have resulted! But this is the field of "alternative history". Maybe in a parallel universe....



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)