Business of News

The context for the crisis: A Q&A with Penny Abernathy

August 19, 2020

For years, Penny Muse Abernathy—the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism—has been studying the disintegration of journalism’s traditional business model, mapping losses of physical newsrooms across the United States. The current financial crisis, brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic, is an acceleration of the crisis Abernathy has been researching for years, and The Journalism Crisis Project depends on the work of collaborators like her. 

For this week’s newsletter, I talked with Abernathy about the context for the current crisis—how the media landscape arrived at this low point, how journalism leaders have failed to mitigate the industry’s vulnerabilities, and how newsrooms and policy-makers need to look beyond band-aid solutions to plan for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: How did your work come to focus on the rapidly declining economic state of the journalism industry? And how did the industry get to this point?

Penny Abernathy: A few years ago, One of the FCC commissioners was coming to UNC, and I was asked to take a look at media ownership and what had changed over the preceding ten years. When I did, I was stunned at how much turnover there had been in North Carolina, especially among newspapers. That kept me thinking—if this is happening in North Carolina, what is it like in the rest of the country?

Two years later, we came out with our first report, focusing on the rise of a new media baron—the rise of private equity, hedge funds and, to a degree, pension funds. From 2004 to 2014, more than half of all American newspapers changed hands, and almost more than half of that number changed hands more than once. There was no financial incentive for those new owners to invest in the community. Each time, there was a new group of managers coming and a new round of cost-cutting that happened—with increasing layoffs and the continuing trend of closures.

Everybody thought—back then—that to save themselves, newspapers needed to go digital. But we have discovered, with our own tracking over the last fifteen years, that independent digital sites are struggling just like newspapers. Somewhere between 2014 and 2016, Google and Facebook began to siphon off the vast majority of digital revenue in any market. Whether you’re a legacy newspaper, a TV station, or a digital startup, you’re all fighting for a very small piece of the pie. There’s been a collapse of the for-profit advertising, print-based model, with no real viable digital alternative developed so far. 

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CJR: What alternatives have newsrooms tried?

PA: Those papers that I had looked at—prior to covid-19—that were best positioned for success did so through a variety of ways. They held in-person events, they started lifestyle and business magazines. They looked at setting up in-house digital ad agencies, e-commerce. One even went so far as to buy a local bookstore. You’ve got to think creatively, but in a disciplined fashion, because you’ve got such small margins. And you’ve got to know how to measure and account for success and when to pull the plug and say, we tried it, it didn’t work, we need to move on.

I am intrigued by the very thoughtful way that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette went about converting to digital. One of the hardest things for a legacy operation is to change people’s habits. But three years ago, the Democrat-Gazette spent a year and a half trying to convert their readers to digital subscriptions, keeping the price at the same level as a print subscription. 

The publisher knew that he had to convert about 75% of the print subscribers. He wanted to cut out six days of print and have Sunday-only. He started in the markets farthest from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he could no longer justify distribution and printing costs. He tried several things, and he tested them in every market. And it took him almost a year to settle on the formula, which was that he bought subscribers iPads if they agreed to continue to pay for the news. He was saying—the value here is not the physical paper. The value is the news and information. 

Now he’s relying almost exclusively on digital subscriptions, which is something most of the large newspapers who’ve gone digital have not done. They’re charging for their print, and charging little for their digital subscription. It doesn’t pay for the newsroom.

CJR: Where else have you seen newsrooms fall short in the past?

PA: One of the problems I see, both with large metros as well as smaller news organizations, is that the revenue that came from traditional sources has dried up so quickly—they’re in a reaction game. They’re not in a strategic mode, asking What is my five year plan? Where do I want to be? What are the possible ways I could get there? There’s no contingency planning or scenario planning that says What if X happens? 

This year, we were already seeing an acceleration of closures before the pandemic, because the price for newspapers—especially in economically struggling communities—has gotten so low, nobody even wants to buy them.

I think there’s a real need to hone in on where the problems are, what the potential solutions are. We tend to have a ton of case studies, but not a strategic look of what really works—why it worked in one market and not in another. I love reading case studies about what worked for somebody somewhere. But what is universal about that model? And what are the unintended consequences?

CJR: Your work focuses a lot on “news deserts” and “ghost newspapers”. What do you mean when you use those terms?

PA: “News deserts” is a term that has evolved. In many circles, because the newspaper had been the prime, if not the sole source of local news and information from most small and mid-sized communities, the original definition that a lot of scholars used was “a town without a newspaper,” because a strong local newspaper has the ability to set the agenda for public policy issues at the local level. 

My own definition has evolved to say, a news desert is “a place where there is limited access to the type of critical news and information that I need in order to make informed decisions about the quality of my life.” I can have a lack of access because there’s no local news being produced, or because there is but I do not have access to it—because there’s a lack of infrastructure or because I can’t pay the $200 a month. 

A “ghost newspaper” is when you look at what a newspaper’s journalist headcount was in the early 2000s, and—it’s hard to draw a line—but if it’s less than 25% of what it was. Then to me it is a newspaper in name only, a newspaper that still has a nameplate, but its reporting abilities are drastically diminished. 

CJR: What are your goals, looking forward?

PA: Here’s what gets me up every morning, and charging ahead: I think over the last two years, there has been a real awakening in the industry, among community activists, and among certain politicians as to what is at stake if we lose the local newspaper, in whatever form it is delivered. I’m not arguing for a newspaper on newsprint. I’m arguing for the function newspapers—especially local newspapers—have played in informing and nurturing democracy at the grassroots level. It is encouraging to me that after years of indifference, there is suddenly a move at the state and the national level to try to think of policies that address the short term issues—primarily because the peril is so great right now. 

What we really have to focus on in the coming year or two is getting people to focus on this, not just in the short term.

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe). 

If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

PARTICIPATE IN A SURVEY FOR LOCAL NEWSROOMS: Tow Center Fellow Damian Radcliffe has launched a new online survey exploring the impact of covid-19 on local newsrooms and examining other changes that are shaping what local newspapers do and how they do it. If you work in a newspaper with a print circulation of 50,000 or less, please take a few minutes to contribute, and encourage others to participate.We believe that the voice and the experiences of journalists working across the country deserve to be heard,” Radcliffe wrote on Medium. “In turn, your input can help better inform industry decision-making, show where support is most needed, as well as highlight examples of successes and innovations.”

Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • MORE LAYOFFS, CONSOLIDATIONS: Vox Media laid off 72 staffers, most of whom had previously been furloughed, CNN reported. The Albuquerque Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican combined their print operations, the AP reported last week.  
  • EIGHT NEWSROOM OFFICES CLOSE FOREVER: Tribune Publishing announced the permanent closure of five newspaper offices, including The New York Daily News office in Lower Manhattan; The Orlando Sentinel office; Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Morning Call; Westminster, Maryland’s Carroll County Times; and Annapolis, Maryland’s Capital Gazette, The New York Times reported last week. Several Chicago Tribune suburban affiliate offices—the Naperville Sun, the Beacon-News, and the Courier-News were not listed in the company’s initial announcement of newsroom closures. A Naperville Sun reporter told Asish Valentine, at NPR, that “having a physical office was an intangible benefit in gaining community members’ trust and allowing reporters to better serve the areas they covered.” And The Chesapeake News Guild tweeted, “Newsrooms are people, not buildings, it’s true. But having a physical space where we can all gather, collaborate, debate, create, joke, yell at each other makes our coverage so much better.” 
  • JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION THANKS FRONTLINE WORKERS: The American Press Institute’s Better News project reported that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution generated $35,000 in advertising revenues alongside its project to thank workers on the front lines of the covid-19 pandemic. Rather than selling advertising space in a traditional model, the Journal-Constitution asked advertisers to partner in supporting the project. Mark Waligore, the paper’s managing editor, told API in a Q&A that “the real success can’t be measured by numbers. The project really struck a chord with the community — one of our main goals all along.” 
  • AFRICAN NEWS OUTLETS MOVE TO DIGITAL: Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, a journalist from Botswana, founder of the INK Center for Investigative Journalism—and panelist in our second Journalism Crisis Project webinar—spoke with DW Akademie about the effects of covid-19 on African news outlets. Though many outlets have hastily transitioned to digital publishing and publish more reporting than ever before, Ntibinyane says, many have struggled to monetize their new model. “More nonprofit news outlets should be established on the continent,” he adds. “News organizations should pool resources and act jointly to find solutions for the problems affecting the industry, and embrace innovation and creativity.” 
  • ONE LOCAL NEWS STARTUP IS GROWING: Santa Cruz Local—a news startup with website and podcast that launched a year ago to cover the city’s public institutions —has grown during the pandemic, Kristen Hare reported for Poynter. The outlet has five hundred members, and newsletter subscriptions have tripled since the pandemic hit. “Their work is built on listening to the community to understand what kind of news it wants, what questions it has and offering different paths to getting it,” Hare writes. This includes a bi-lingual survey about the upcoming election, which reporters will use to design questions for local candidates. “We’ve worked so hard to build this company over the last 20 months and carve our niche – deeply-reported, community-driven, solutions-oriented podcasts & stories on local public policy,” CEO and co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman tweeted. 
  • COLLABORATIVE JOURNALISM BLOSSOMS: The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University reports more than three hundred examples of collaborative journalism projects, a quickly growing trend in the news industry. Last week, Nieman Lab examined the ways in which the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have continued to encourage and necessitate collaboration among news outlets—from local New Hampshire outlets pooling their coverage, to a Philadelphia initiative that provides resources on public health information in five different languages, to public and collaborative open data sets that can be both supplemented and employed by journalists at a variety of news organizations. 
  • LOCAL JOURNALISTS LICENSE VIDEOS TO NATIONAL OUTLETS: In Portland, a group of twenty local journalists has formed a group called the Portland Press Corps, Deborah Bloom reported for CJR. The group devised standardized payment rates for licensing their videos to non-local outlets like ABC and NBC. One of the reporters, Laura Jedeed—recently injured by a rubber bullet to the leg—reported turning down news outlets who wanted clips for free. (Back in May, Sarah Gilman wrote for CJR that “Times are tough for staff editors, but they’re even tougher for freelance writers. How can editors help? Now, as ever, by striving for fairness—and kindness.”) 
  • DISTRIBUTION MODELS SERVE NARROW AUDIENCES: Marlee Baldridge wrote for The Objective, on Substack, that a news outlet’s decisions about platform usage and distribution models inherently tailor its work to a particular audience. To improve access to their reporting, some newsrooms have employed SMS texting services to reach a wider audience; others use paper flyers. When it comes to serving a wider readership, Baldridge writes, “there’s so much that can be easily missed. For example: Outlier Media sends information-heavy texts in small packets so they don’t abuse cell phone user’s data caps.” (For CJR’s summer Politics issue, Akintunde Ahmad wrote about the all-too-common disconnect between journalists and they audiences they claim to serve.) 
  • BRAND-SAFETY ALGORITHMS HINDER NEWS OUTLETS: Keyword blocking can steer advertisers away from the news, Wired reported last week. Nandini Jammi, cofounder of Sleeping Giants—an organization that used boycotts to pressure advertisers to stop supporting outlets like Breitbart—realized that increasing numbers of advertisers were attempting to avoid negative attention by using keyword blockers, to the detriment of the journalism industry. The presence of words like “coronavirus” and “covid-19” on block lists steered advertisers away from outlets like CBS News and The Boston Globe. Robert Rakowitz, head of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, suggested to Wired that a better model requires advertisers choosing their partnering publications rather than allowing algorithms to target a specific audience.

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here. And for CJR, Stephanie Russell-Kraft wrote about Successful Pitches, a resource for freelancers.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites