The end of American Journalism Review and what it means for media criticism

AJR is no more. You might not have noticed, because by the time it winked out this summer there was not a lot of it left. The American Journalism Review had gone from publishing 11 semi-solid issues a year with a decent website, to three issues per year, to zero print issues per year with Web content about “media innovation” that was designed and generated by students. 

Now it’s gone, and you may well be among those whose reaction is: So what? There is an argument to be made that in an age when so much attention is paid to media issues by the media itself, a freestanding organ of media criticism is a bit of a luxury. And two of them?

Consider: We have the spawn of Jon Stewart critiquing the news on a near nightly basis all around the dial, often beautifully. We have thoughtful lone guns like Jack Shafer at Politico or Jay Rosen and his PressThink, along with other voices all around the internet. We have media covering media all the time. Think of the pixels generated around Brian Williams’ stretched tales, around Megyn Kelly vs. Donald Trump, around the latest pointed discussion of tone and content at BuzzFeed. Who needs more?

Psst. Maybe all of us?

Here are a couple of examples from AJR. In 2010, it ran a nearly 11,000-word piece by Jodi Enda (“Capital Flight”) documenting the steep decline of Washington reporting—not at political hotspots like the White House, where reporters continue to stumble over each other, but at the bureaus, agencies, and departments where so many life-changing decisions get made, like Justice, EPA, or Agriculture. Where good stories might mean something to, say, a coal miner or a vegetable farmer, or a black voter in North Carolina. The bright accompanying chart that compared numbers of reporters stationed in various offices between 2003 and 2010 was pretty unsettling. Is that kind of press analysis going to run on Colbert or the evening news? Not likely.

Too wonky? How about this one: Rachel Smolkin’s scathing and detailed analysis (“Justice Delayed”) of the coverage of the false rape case against the Duke lacrosse team, notable in part because she fleshed out the roles of reporters who did not rush to judgment, who did the job right, as well as those—quite a number—who did it wrong. Was that in The New York Times?

Or, further back a few years, Alicia Shepard’s fine report (“Take the Money and Talk”) on the giant checks that some celebrity journalists pick up on the speaking circuit, complete with a nice anecdotal lede—Cokie Roberts delivering insider crumbs to a Junior League-sponsored seminar in Fort Lauderdale for $35K. Is that OK? You might not have heard about it on All Things Considered.

Analyzing, reporting, and critiquing the media is a big job, and I find it hard to swallow the idea that the media itself  can or will do it well or completely enough, even supplemented by independents. You need a place for writers and thinkers dedicated to that mission alone, free to cover the sweep of both big and small media, from Santa Barbara to Cincinnati to New York to the rest of the world. (You can read a collection of AJR’s “greatest hits” here.)

During my 10 years as CJR’s executive editor, I remember once or twice getting to say Oh, haha, AJR has this story that we ran two years ago, and I expect AJR occasionally had a chance to say something similar about us. But what strikes me most on that score is the lack of duplication over the years—how the differences in the publications’ personalities, as well as the immense span of the press beat, meant that we rarely stepped on each other. The competition, meanwhile, was good for everybody. They ran some good stuff.

So what happened? Money. The University of Maryland foundation, which had owned AJR for several years, turned it over to the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, at UMD, in 2011. This was in the wake of an ultimately bogus yet scary lawsuit, for one thing (a newspaper publisher sued an AJR writer, and the school and the foundation picked up the costs, which were largely reimbursed when the suit was thrown out of court). There was a stressful faculty meeting in October 2012, where it began to be clear that saving the publication would mean cutting other things, according to the current dean, Lucy Dalglish, who tried hard nonetheless. But AJR began to shrink, and thus to drift out of the conversation. Rem Rieder, AJR’s longtime editor, left in 2013 and the writing was on the wall. “There’s nobody more disappointed about this than me,” Dalglish says.

Back on its 25th anniversary in 2002, AJR ran a nice history of the magazine, by Lori Robertson, which in retrospect serves as a kind of obit. In the piece, Tom Kunkel, the former dean of Maryland’s J-school (now the president of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin), says that if you want to make money with a magazine, don’t run a journalism review. Good advice. Advertising, philanthropic support, and print circulation—none of these have been getting easier lately, as you may have noticed. Rieder pointed out in that article: “It’s clear that a magazine of this kind is never going to be self-sustaining.” Nonetheless, he pledged to maintain AJR as “the watchdog of the field” for another 25 years. He got about halfway.

So now there is one serious journalism review in the country, this one, which is doing great but hey, truth be told, has also struggled mightily on and off since its founding in 1961. These magazines need to act like a business, with efficiency and innovation, but Rieder is right: They are not going to be self-sustaining. During my tenure the threat of layoffs was always groaning somewhere under the floorboards. Donors appeared in the nick of several times. Some of these tended to stay, others moved on to the next shiny thing. The hard part is to fund that which is not new and brightly packaged but is steady and steadfast and, if done properly, quietly but deeply valuable. The journalism school, of course, has a primary duty to its students and their education—and to their scholarships—far more than to a publication. The university here was often generous in my time, though I was never convinced it fully appreciated the value of a healthy journalism review. We scrambled and survived, even thrived sometimes. And it looks strong to me now, from a distance of a couple of years. I certainly hope so.

Not to get all mystical on you, all wings-of-the-butterfly and all, but if you are smart you know that press coverage is the primary fuel for the great Civic Conversation that, in turn, helps shape our communities, our regions, our nation, our world. And so it seems to me to be hard to exaggerate the importance of energetic and imaginative and serious media criticism to try to keep the quality of that coverage—and thus that Civic Conversation—elevated. 

And so for those reasons I miss the American Journalism Review and salute it, and treasure all the more the one that remains on the job.    

CJR Delacorte Fellow Jack Murtha contributed to this article.

Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.