Let’s start with the good news.
With a flick of a finger, more information is instantaneously available than at any time in human history. Stories, columns, opinions, video, photos, music, movies, texts, social media, streaming, podcasts. There are more ways to consume–desktop, phone, tablet, smartwatch–and infinitely more ways to voice your views.
Okay, enough of that.
The news business is in a tailspin. Firings and layoffs and buyouts are decimating its ranks. Publications and websites are folding. Revenue is plunging. Credibility is at an all-time low. And AI is starting to gobble up jobs.
Worst of all, after the pandemic, scandals and impeachments, economic anxiety and political gridlock, interest in news is declining.
In L.A. they’re always worried about the Big One. For media people it feels like the earthquake has already struck.
The billionaire owner of the once-mighty Los Angeles Times, Patrick Soon-Shiong, has fired the editor and more than 20 percent of its staff, devastating the Washington bureau and several key units. The billionaire owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, has given buyouts to 240 staffers, decimating the metro staff and losing many of the paper’s biggest names.
If newspapers aren’t owned by these wealthy moguls, they’re increasingly controlled by hedge funds whose strip-mining tactics have reduced them to a skeleton of their former selves.
From Vice to Vox, from Time (15 percent laid off) to Business Insider (8 percent), from Sports Illustrated (blown up) to BuzzFeed News (shuttered), the carnage is everywhere.
And just yesterday, the Messenger, a news and aggregation site launched by Jimmy Finkelstein, former owner of the Hill, shut down after less than a year, having lost $38 million and some staffers lured from top publications.
CNN just had a major round of layoffs. Cable news audiences are aging, and cord-cutting is growing in popularity.
It’s not just that the voracious Internet broke the business model; that happened a quarter-century ago. It’s that there seems to be no end in sight.
“Journalists across the country burst into flames of panic this week, as bad news for the news business crested and erupted everywhere all at once,” writes Jack Shafer in Politico.
The impact is greatest on local reporting, with far fewer folks to check up on their city halls and statehouses, especially in smaller markets.
“No matter how many heroic nonprofit newsrooms like the Baltimore Banner and Daily Memphian take root, no matter how many Substack-like newsletters blossom or creators emerge to drop their videos on YouTube, you can’t deny the journalism business’ decline,” Shafer writes.
What’s remarkable to me is how many of these pieces, and there have been many, overlook the importance of political bias. Republicans have been complaining about a liberal tilt since I began to read newspapers. Now, in the Trump era, half the country believes the media have become the opposition party, determined to block their man from returning to the White House. But during the Biden presidency, a growing percentage of those on the left have lost trust in the business as well.
You have Red and Blue America, each filled with anger, each side viewing the other as evil and dangerous, with the press having forfeited its standing as a neutral arbiter of facts.
“What makes this so unnerving,” says the Atlantic, “is the fact that the meltdown has come amid—and in seeming defiance of—a generally booming economy. The ranks of professional journalists keep declining even as overall unemployment stays low, incomes rise, and the stock market reaches new heights.”
The author, Paul Farhi, a longtime media reporter for the Washington Post, just took the paper’s buyout.
“What’s more, a presidential-election cycle tends to produce a surge of readers, viewers, and advertisers as people pay closer attention to the news. Not this time, at least so far.”
Beyond news fatigue, Farhi notes, “Facebook has steadily reduced the amount of news that users see in their feed, wiping out a major source of traffic.” I’d add that Google has gobbled some of that revenue as well.
There are obviously exceptions. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe are strong franchises. Fox News exceeds the prime-time ratings of CNN and MSNBC combined. But even television networks feel compelled to pour money into online shows and pay sites.
“Will journalism become a hobby like scrapbooking or street busking, done on the cheap or for donations, but one without much of a career path?” Politico asks.
I’m more pessimistic than I’ve ever been, and there’s no easy solution. Some say government subsidies are needed, but that raises serious conflict questions. And if zillionaires can’t revive newspapers and magazines, what hope is there for ordinary companies and local owners?
I do think that just as television didn’t wipe out radio, journalism will have to morph into new and more compelling forms to survive. Who would have thought even three years ago that everyone and their brother-in-law would have a podcast?
But people are willing to pay monthly fees for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and the like, though they are going through a belt-tightening wave as well, with Spotify having just axed 17 percent of its staff.
If news outlets can’t convince most of the public that their product is worth buying, they bear the ultimate blame.