Another brutal year for the media industry
Bleak fundamentals and the need for a business model
The media industry saw several waves of high-profile layoffs in 2023. We had layoffs in January, Gawker shut down in February, Buzzfeed cut 15 percent of its staff in April, Condé Nast laid off staff (including at the New Yorker), NPR cut ten percent of its workforce, and Vox Media laid off four percent of its staff on November 30, after a prior round of layoffs. Last year also closed with a bunch of media layoffs, which came on the heels of pandemic layoffs, so it’s been a brutal few years.
Because the journalism industry is so high profile relative to its economic significance, the business of journalism tends to attract a lot of bad takes.
On the one hand, people who don’t like the product for various ideological reasons want to attribute any economic struggles to their (often somewhat imagined) political beefs with writers. On the other hand, because the average person working in journalism is to the left of the average American, there’s a lot of internal disdain for the idea of taking basic business issues seriously.
Last week, for example, the Washington Post union called for a one-day work stoppage as part of its efforts to secure a better deal for its workers. I fully support the right to bargain collectively, and as a writer myself, I want everyone in the industry to secure high pay and good working conditions. That said, the Washington Post loses tons of money. It’s true that Jeff Bezos is a very wealthy person and he could sell shares of Amazon to cover losses indefinitely if he wanted to. But “rich guy covers our losses” is still a business model, and you’d still need to think of some way to make that model work. After all, why would Jeff Bezos want to do that? He’s often accused, falsely I think, of having bought the Post as a kind of stealth deep lobbying play. When in fact, the Trump administration sought to punish Amazon financially for the Washington Post’s coverage. But certainly the Post could try to configure itself as a publicity arm for Bezos’ personal interests, and that could be a reason for him to keep covering its losses. Or they could pitch themselves as a charitable undertaking that wins him esteem in the eyes of people he cares about. Or they could try to be profitable (or at least break even).
But these are all business models.
And I think people who work in or aspire to work in media should learn and think more about the business side of the industry. Both because if you want your career to prosper, it needs to fit into someone’s business model, and because if you want the industry to thrive, it needs business models that are viable.