The inimitable Ethan Zuckerman, a true renaissance man if I’ve ever seen one, just wrote an important – and mildly depressing – post on the state of print advertising.

After providing a useful education in the history of online advertising strategies (and the best description of impression-based ads vs. pay-per-click that I’ve read), Ethan gets concerned that the prices of print advertising are wildly inflated, thanks to the difficulty in gauging its effectiveness.

Ad inserts in Ethan’s hometown paper are priced, in internet terms, at about $45 CPMs:

Advertising inserts in the Berkshire Eagle are priced at a base rate of $45 per thousand customers for two print pages, targeted by zipcode. Those prices don’t include production costs - the advertiser is responsible producing the inserts and delivering them to the production facility. The cost covers the insertion of the ad into the appropriate papers and their delivery.

This is an very high advertising rate. With a few exceptions, that kind of rate faded away from the web some time ago, most likely because when you can track click-throughs, you see the true value of these ads, and that value is less than print publishers claim it is.

So:

Here’s my concern. If I’m right and print advertising costs are fundamentally irrational, then it’s possible that the way we’ve built media in the United States can’t survive a transition to a more rational market. That would be bad. Newspapers aren’t just businesses - they serve a critical function in a democratic society, informing citizens so they can make intelligent voting decisions, lobby their elected representatives on issues of their concern and hold political and business powers accountable.

Are newspapers going to crash like the stock market did, much for the same reason? Unlike many of my fellow techies, I will miss print. I think online news and print newspapers can coexist somehow, and seeing the print news industry go down for inflated ads costs would be a shame.

But the internet is the ultimate vacuum, and whatever we lose in the newspaper crash would no doubt be recovered online, probably in a more innovative way.