Playing monopoly

Remember how the Internet was democratizing the flow of information in ways that would be earth-shattering. That may be true -- remember the Arab Spring -- but in American journalism the web is creating bigger monopolies than ever before.

Two aspects of capitalism and the Internet loom large in digital journal­ism. First, if anyone can make money doing online journalism, it will almost certainly be as a very large, centralized operation, probably a monopoly or close to it. The Internet has proven to be more effective at centralizing cor­porate control than it has been at enhancing decentralization, at least in news media. “We are probably far more centralized than we were in the past,” one executive said.

To some extent it is because human beings are capable of meaningfully visiting only a small number of websites on a regular basis. The Google search mechanism encourages concentration because sites that do not end up on the first or second page of a search effectively do not exist. As Michael Wolff puts it in Wired, “The top 10 Web sites accounted for 31 percent of US pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in 2006, and about 75 percent in 2010.” By 2012, according to the Web traffic measurer Experian hitwise, 35 percent of all Web visits now go to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Facebook. (The same firms get two thirds of online ad revenue.)

The grand irony of the Internet is that what was once regarded as an agent of diversity, choice, and competition has become an engine of monopoly. As to journalism, it is unclear if anyone can make a go of it commercially, beyond material aimed at the wealthy and the business community.

So this is just like the broader right of free speech. You've always been able (for the most part) to get up on a soapbox in Fairmount Park and say whatever you wanted -- but (before 2000) it was a lot better to own a newspaper. Today, you can say whatever you want on your little blog, too -- but it's better to be Yahoo!