Tough Business

Sewell Chan on the journalism industry’s persistent struggles


For the past quarter century, digital transformations in how news is produced, distributed, and consumed have upended the business of journalism. A few newspapers—namely the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post—have managed to attract millions of online subscribers, some of them outside the United States, who are willing to pay for quality reporting and for whom the dead-tree edition is an afterthought. But, particularly at the state and local levels, many outlets have suffered acute losses or shuttered altogether. Between 2008 and 2020, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis, the number of reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers in America fell by more than 25 percent, from 114,000 to 85,000. There are now more fast-food workers in Indiana than newsroom workers in the entire country; public relations specialists outnumber journalists by more than three to one.

What’s striking, when reading through the archives of the Columbia Journalism Review, is that this has always been a tough business. Journalists are fond of narratives of decline, trading nostalgic memories of “the good old days,” and yet the truth is that the old days weren’t all that good—or at least they weren’t very good for very many people. Sure, there were a few decades when being a correspondent at one of the most prestigious publications meant taking first-class flights and enjoying fully subsidized housing (not to mention three-martini lunches for the editors). But those gigs were relatively rare, and—let’s face it—we all know who got those plum positions and who didn’t.

Much more common were fears of layoffs and bankruptcy, combined with anxiety-induced paralysis. In 1982, my friend Mary Ann Giordano, a pioneering New York City beat reporter at the Daily News, suffered night after night of anguished worry when the paper went up for sale and became consumed by turmoil. “It has been more than seven weeks since I menstruated and there seems no logical reason for this,” she wrote in her diary. (She took a pregnancy test that came back negative; her doctor told her the cause was likely stress.) Nearly four decades later, the Daily News once again faces reports of its imminent demise, among many other local outlets. In 1991, at the age of fifty-three, John Long lost his job when NBC News closed its Miami bureau. “The people who own NBC don’t really care about their obligation to the American people, to the viewers, to their own affiliates,” he lamented.

Publishers and network executives are probably no more or less selfish than other employers; the postwar promise of a long, stable career with a pension as a reward for decades of loyal service began to erode in the seventies. Work has only become more precarious, and incomes and wealth more unequal, since then. Nevertheless, women and people of color have often—justifiably—expected better from their workplaces, including newsrooms. Reading Mary Ellen Schoonmaker’s 1988 examination of the dilemmas female journalists face when they have kids infuriated me; even now, some newsrooms remain inhospitable to employees (including dads) with childcare or elder care duties. “The United States is the only major industrialized nation that does not have some form of national, partially paid maternity-related benefits,” she wrote. More than three decades later, that is still the case.

The old days weren’t all that good—or at least they weren’t very good for very many people.

Are other models possible? Speaking in 1970 about the distinctive ownership structure of Le Monde, which is partly controlled by its employees, Jean Schwoebel, who was an editor at the paper, mused about the radically different journalism cultures in France and the US. “It is much more difficult for American journalists than for us because in such a society as yours it is not regarded as a scandal that economic processes control the press,” he observed.

Perhaps he was simply ahead of his time. In recent years, a wave of unionization has taken hold in newsrooms across America. The NewsGuild has organized journalists at publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News—both historically anti-union. Digital media outlets including HuffPost, Slate, and Vox, once thought to be immune from pesky labor–management conflicts, have seen editorial employees organize with the Writers Guild of America, East. Many new union demands go beyond pay and working conditions to address discrimination; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the sway journalists have over editorial decisions made in their name (and under their byline).

Ownership models are also changing, and not all the news is bleak. Even as weekly and daily papers have gone out of business or been taken over by hedge funds and private equity firms keen to strip newsrooms to the bone, several legacy publications, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Salt Lake Tribune, are now owned by nonprofits, and new nonprofit outlets are proliferating—including ProPublica, the Marshall Project, and the Texas Tribune, where I serve as editor in chief. Local ownership has made a comeback in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis. Employment at digital-only publications has risen steadily. Digital subscriptions, philanthropy, and live events are promising streams of revenue.

Predictions are always dangerous, but it seems highly unlikely that the future of journalism will meet the ideal set out by E.B. White in 1976, when he castigated an arrangement in which Xerox sponsored a long reported essay by Harrison E. Salisbury in the pages of Esquire. Such commercial entanglements are “an invitation to evil,” White warned.

White was correct in arguing that a “ferocity of independence” is an essential trait for a great publication—a trait embodied, in his mind, by Harold Ross’s New Yorker. But White died in 1985, long before social media giants and Web search engines gobbled up all the advertising that once paid journalism’s bills. The economics of our industry are more challenging now, in ways that he could not have anticipated. What’s clear is that the days when a top editor could focus only on stories—not digital audience, workplace culture, buyouts and layoffs, or assertive unions—are gone for good.

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Sewell Chan is the editor in chief of the Texas Tribune—a nonprofit, nonpartisan digital publication founded in 2009. Before that, he was the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and an editor at the New York Times.

TOP IMAGE: Ringo Starr in London, 1964; David Hurn/Magnum