The two crises in the news business
One is bad for journalists, the other is bad for democracy
As the general American economic situation continues to improve — strong GDP growth in the 4th Quarter of 2023, lower inflation, record stock market — January of 2024 has been marked by disastrous news for the journalism industry. Pitchfork, the legendary music criticism site, is essentially shutting down. The LA Times and Time Magazine, both already owned by billionaires as vanity projects, have both announced massive layoffs. The Baltimore Sun has been bought by the head of Sinclair Broadcasting, who seems to want to turn it into right-wing propaganda. Overall newsroom employment has fallen by over 25 percent since 2008, even as the population and the economy as a whole have grown enormously.
This has prompted, as one would expect, a lot of garment-rending in the industry, and Jeff Pearlman’s advice to save your career by making yourself indispensable was understandably not that well-received by others in the industry.
The painful truth, though, is that there’s a level on which Pearlman is very much right — and another on which he’s obviously wrong. When your industry is in structural decline, being an above-average performer is incredibly important. In a growing industry, being below-average is fine. As long as you’re not a toxic troublemaker who undermines other people’s work, a growing company that’s competing with other growing companies will find something useful for you to do. And over time, you’ll gain skills and experience and seniority. A shrinking industry isn’t like that. Someone is going to lose their job, and Pearlman-type advice helps minimize the odds that it will be you.
But this doesn’t address the structural issue.
Even if everyone in journalism simultaneously became 15 percent more indispensable, people are still going to be laid off because the industry is shrinking. There’s no sense in being a total fatalist, but there’s also no sense in pretending that these secular trends can be reversed by individual efforts. There is just not as much audience-side demand for the labor of journalists as there used to be. And journalism as an advertising platform now faces ferociously tough competition from the Google/Facebook/Amazon behemoth. And the journalism institutions themselves compete against each other more viciously in a world where anyone anywhere on earth can read any article within minutes.
What I think is important to keep in mind, though, is that the structural crisis for journalists as human beings is only partially overlapping with the structural crisis for American democracy of news coverage drying up. These are related issues, but they’re not identical. And if you’re looking for billionaire or non-profit funding, you need to come up with pitches that are laser-focused on the latter point, and also acknowledge that addressing the second issue wouldn’t really do much for the first one.
The crisis of abundance
I love listening to Chris Ryan’s appearances on various Ringer Podcast Network pop culture shows, and something he mentions from time to time is that his father was The Philadelphia Inquirer’s movie critic.
That’s the kind of job that doesn’t really exist anymore. The Inquirer still runs content about movies, to an extent. But it’s general local interest fare, like about how Da’Vine Joy and Colman Domingo are from Philadelphia or the listicle on the 50 best Philadelphia movies. There’s just no particularly demand for a full-time film critic because, by and large, the films available to audience in Philadelphia are the same as the ones available in Dallas and Milwaukee and Seattle and everywhere else. Stephen Silver, a very good film critic who lives in Philadelphia, does occasional pieces for the Inquirer when there’s a particular local angle, but he’s also on his Substack and writing for other outlets. There’s no way to be good enough or skilled enough to be “indispensable” in that kind of role, because the whole idea that every city’s newspaper has be a kind of mini-NYT doesn’t really make sense in the internet era.
This is most striking when it comes to nostalgia for newspapers’ now-shuttered foreign bureaus. When I was starting out in my career, it was news that the Baltimore Sun was scaling back from five foreign bureaus to only three.
This process has played out repeatedly all across the country. And international news, of course, is incredibly important. But I don’t think you could reasonably say that the audience for internet news has become worse-informed over the past 20 years. One of the great virtues of the internet is that if you’re curious about an event happening in South Africa or the United Kingdom, you can just read their local newspapers. I don’t read Italian, but Chat GPT tells me this article is about the Brothers of Italy Party trying to get its leaders to improve their English-language skills. In the past, the way a story like that would come to America is that some Rome-based correspondent for an American outlet would read it and basically re-write it in English for American readers who might think “huh, that’s kinda interesting.”
The loss of these jobs is a disaster for journalism careers, but they’re so painfully and utterly gone in part because their loss clearly isn’t a disaster for the reading public. People can still find out about movies and world affairs. They’re surely better-informed than ever before.
When I interned at Rolling Stone, one of our intern jobs was to scour the entertainment sections of various day-old big city daily newspapers that would get delivered to the office. We would cut (with scissors) and paste (with rubber cement) articles that mentioned famous bands, and then photocopy a clippings book that we would hand out to all the staffers. Sometimes a random news occurrence from Boston would end up getting summarized as a Rolling Stone front of the book item, and that’s how people in Miami would find out it happened. Today, we have less labor-intensive ways of making sure everyone knows when Taylor Swift does something interesting.
The case of the Washington Bureau
A related issue, as noted by Cameron Joseph in Columbia Journalism Review, is the death of the Washington Bureau.
It used to be that every substantial paper would maintain a team of journalists in Washington, DC to provide coverage of the federal government for the enlightenment of the readers back home. A lot of this coverage was just national news. Each newspaper would contain some informed speculation about what was coming in the State of the Union Address. But instead of multiple national news providers competing for a national audience, they served geographically segmented audiences. That geographic segmentation meant there was less competition than there is today. Which, like in any market, was nice for producers (i.e., journalists and newspaper owners) but bad for readers, who today benefit from the fact that a handful of national outlets, plus speciality shops like Politico and Axios, are competing relentlessly for scoops.
But Joseph argues that there is also a real democracy problem here.
A local paper’s DC bureau would pay special attention to its hometown congressional delegation. Someone would write the story about Kevin McCarthy and chaos in the House GOP, but with special attention to what your reps are doing. And the outcomes would be filtered through the lens of local interests, which incentivized a kind of politics of localism. Richard Fenno wrote a classic book in the 1970s called “Homestyle” about how members behave in their districts, with the key point being that it’s different from how they behave on Capitol Hill. The DC bureau acted as connective tissue between those two personas.
As Joseph says, if the voters at home only hear about their member through the lens of national politics, then they will vote robotically on the basis of national concerns. That helps drive polarization and, frankly, laziness on the part of members. If there’s nobody covering Congress specifically for the residents of Kansas, then there’s no way to get credit for doing a really good job. You just need to align with national political brands that Kansans like.
I definitely see Joseph’s point on this. But I do think it’s filtered through a somewhat rose-colored lens.
Political localism had its de-polarizing virtues, but it was also grounded in voters fundamentally not understanding the American political system. It was very frustrating to see an overwhelmingly Democratic House district send a guy like Chris Shays to DC where, yes, he was a “moderate” Republican, but in practice he was keeping Tom DeLay in power and advancing conservative causes. The shift to seeing this kind of thing through more of a national lens has created problems, but those problems are fundamentally downstream of voters’ understanding of the system getting better not worse.
What’s more, precisely because coverage is more nationalized, the coverage of actual issues has gotten better. If something happens, like a presidentially-ordered review of liquified natural gas exports, you can read about that decision from a variety of angles, with coverage by people who have some knowledge of the topic and who are able to go a little deeper than “no more LNG exports — what does it mean for Town X?”
The local hole
All of this is just to say that the main problem facing journalists is increased competition. Read any story about national antitrust issues, and you’ll learn that a lack of competition is good for producers and bad for consumers. The internet has dramatically increased competition — both among news outlets for audience, between news outlets and things that are not news outlets for audience, and between news outlets and everything else for ad dollars. This has been good for both readers and advertisers, but bad for news producers, including journalists.
Lost in the shuffle, though, is the genuinely local coverage.
Not “articles from Rome written for people in Los Angeles” or “articles from DC for people in Los Angeles” but actual articles about Los Angeles for people in Los Angeles.
There are 5.8 million people in Denmark, 7.7 million people in Washington State, and 9.8 million people in Los Angeles County, plus another 8 million or so in Riverside, Orange, and San Bernardino Counties. It’s not like Southern California is a news desert, but what makes the LA Times cutbacks especially sad is that this is clearly a region of the country where the government institutions — the county commissions, the sheriffs departments, the school boards — are being under-covered relative to their objective importance. The City of Long Beach has almost 500,000 residents and an annual budget of over $3 billion. Important stories are surely getting missed as local government beat reporting withers away.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing doesn’t seem to be on the minds of the rich guys who’ve been investing in media.
The Bezos-era Washington Post, despite some recent layoffs, is better-staffed than it was before he purchased it and employs a lot of great journalists who write great stories. But it’s also the primary news organization in a major American metro area, and the Post simply hasn’t deployed those great journalists to tackle what’s easily the biggest story in the region — why did DC’s murder rate soar in 2023 even while falling nationally?
I feel like I’ve been watching, first-hand, the devastating consequences for democracy when local media withers.
Our mayor has what I think are decent political instincts, but she’s not a particularly inspired or vision-driven politician; she reacts to things that pop up in the news. So the ability of the Post to drive coverage of things like the breakdown of the city’s 911 system is one of the only reasons anything in DC happens. One topic that started to get attention in 2023 is the question of what happens in the prosecutors’ office and the court system once people get arrested. But I don’t think anyone fully has a handle on what’s going on here. There are a lot of visible breadcrumbs in the public data, but also a hole that could only be filled by sustained local coverage.
Again, to be clear, I am naming two cities that have benefitted in recent years from billionaire owners taking a stab at investment. In most of the country, you just have private equity groups trying to wring maximum value out of shrinking subscriber bases while relentlessly de-contenting the journalism. This is not the worst part of the collapse of the industry from the standpoint of journalists — these were never the most fun or prestigious jobs around, and were often just rungs on a ladder that was meant to lead elsewhere — but from the standpoint of American civil society, it’s a disaster.
Everything is a business model
I like Christopher Ingraham’s work, but I think his expressions of frustration about this situation are reflective of an unhelpful attitude that is fairly common in the industry. His point that rich guys like Patrick Soon-Shiong (and certainly Jeff Bezos) could afford to cover open-ended losses is clearly correct, but you’re still left with the question of why they would want to do that.
Local news in Southern California (and Washington, DC and every other American city) is important. But there are a lot of things a rich guy could give money to. Helen Keller International provides Vitamin A supplementation in Sub-Saharan Africa and could save thousands of lives with $40 million per year. Is that what Soon-Shiong is going to do with the money he’s saving through layoffs? Probably not. But I also don’t think we can just assume he’s diving, Scrooge McDuck-style, into a pile of gold coins. Even if you’re rich and philanthropically-minded, it still makes sense to try to pay attention to what you’re spending money on.
Note that in this particular case, Soon-Shiong’s purchase of the paper was immediately followed by a big union organizing drive and a new contract that raised everyone’s pay. That’s great, go labor. But there’s a difference between unionizing a highly profitable company to redistribute rents from capital to labor and unionizing a rich guy’s money-losing vanity project, in a way that makes it more expensive for him and also less fun.
If you want to talk people into supporting media as a philanthropic venture, which seems like a good idea to me, then you’re going to need to think hard about how to make the case. That means focusing on a strategy for filling a genuine public service need in the most cost-effective way possible rather than romanticizing the good old days in a way that’s appealing to journalists. It probably means returning to an old-fashioned, studiously neutral tone — or else very consciously serving as a kind of propaganda organ. Most journalists, in my experience, are by their nature independent-minded people who thrill at nothing more than demonstrating their editorial independence. But independence, it seems to me, was a privilege held by people who had lucrative local monopolies. If you’re asking people to give you money, you need to find a way to align your work with their goals. I get why that’s not most journalists’ first choice of business models. But we know the old models aren’t supporting the kinds of work that they used to, and just complaining isn’t going to change that.