It would be far too dramatic to extrapolate from the disastrous week that journalism itself is dying. The New York Times is healthy. Thanks to good management and demographically vigorous readerships, the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star Tribune carry on. Cable, network and local TV news still toss off profits. But 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.
The cause of the business’ decline is simple. As
tech analyst Benedict Evans succinctly put it in a post this week, “There’s very little you can say about the finances of the newspaper industry that you couldn’t have said 15 or 20 years ago. The old model went away: you had an oligopoly over both advertisers & readers, and real-estate agents and car dealers paid for your social purpose. Now they don’t need you.” Targeted advertising on the web has diminished the old advertisers’ complaint that
50 percent of their ad budgets are wasted and they just didn’t know which half. Now they do, and they avoid newspapers and magazines. Unless a publisher creates something so essential that readers are willing to pay for it — like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or POLITICO, which gets more than half of its revenue from paid subscribers — the sledding will be more than rough. It will be ruinous.
As journalism falls into eclipse but does not completely vanish, newsrooms will continue to contract. This is terrible for the workers who will be discarded. But worse still, it sends a market signal to aspiring journalists that they should avoid the profession because there are no vacancies to fill.
With fewer entry-level jobs and fewer outlets for freelancers, the pipeline of talent that has long watered larger publications with experienced journalists might dry up. Where will aspiring nonfiction book authors learn their trade? The
alternative weeklies realm, from which I hail and which trampolined many young journalists into larger, more prestigious news organizations, are a much diminished force. Once healthy papers folded in places like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Minneapolis; suspended printing in cities like Washington; went biweekly, as in Chicago and Seattle; or otherwise trimmed their page counts down from the early 21st century boom days.
Isn’t there any optimism out there? Certainly not from Harvard’s Nieman Reports, which published Katherine Reynolds Lewis’
obituary in October titled “Hey Journalists, Nobody Is Coming to Save Us.”
There has been no shortage of commentary about the harm that will befall democracy as the watchdogs get sacked, but should we believe them? Writing in the 1880s,
Ambrose Bierce pierced this pretention. “From whom, my friends, do you hear all this talk about the great good wrought by the press, its vigilant guardianship of the public interest, its conservation of the public morals? From the newspapers, and from those who accept their word without analysis,” he wrote. No matter which side you stand on the democracy-requires-a-free-and-vigorous-press proposition, we’re about to test it.
The ongoing flood obviously won’t sweep all journalism away. But except for a few big players, will it become more of a cottage industry than an economic and cultural force? If great cities like Los Angeles, with its many prosperous, educated and engaged citizens, can’t support a decent daily newspaper, what hope is there for the rest of the country? Are we belatedly learning that the great journalism empires — the Times-Mirror chain, Knight Ridder, Gannett, Scripps-Howard, Tribune, McClatchy, Advance Publications, Hearst, Freedom Communications and the rest — weren’t journalism empires as much as they were advertising colossuses, and that they became doomed when they lost status as the best advertising vehicle?
Journalism will survive, of course, even if the business falters as the advertising subsidy that made it viable erodes. Publications for readers who depend on market-moving news like you find in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and other business titles will endure. So will the aforementioned New York Times, which provides news that moves political markets and has established itself as a national voice worth paying for. So, too, will the
gossip and lifestyle magazines remain, as will publications like the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, which serve, boutique-style, a loyal, educated readership. But like the animals that persisted after the great comet struck the earth, most publications will be tiny and eke out an existence in the shadows. Perhaps organized labor and political parties will step forward to sponsor news. But could you trust either to produce real news? That would be like expecting General Motors or Citibank to give you the honest lowdown on the automotive and financial goings-on.
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? Will we become increasingly dependent on solo, opinionated practitioners on Substack like Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald and
city newsletters like the ones from Axios to keep abreast of news not produced by the giants?
The journalism party might not be completely over. It’s human nature to interpret any bad news as the coming apocalypse. But let’s get drunk anyway and then sober up for what’s to come next.
It took all my powers as a typist not to write, “Winter is coming.” Send cliches to
[email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time.
My X and
Threads accounts are the tiny voles that will evolve to become mastodons (no pun inferred) after the comet hits. My RSS feed died before journalism did.