Business of News

We need to reimagine a free press for the twenty-first century

July 1, 2020

Times of crisis are watershed moments. For years, the journalism industry has propped up the crumbling twentieth-century model for a free and independent press with inadequate and makeshift solutions. As covid-19 wipes out the stopgaps, and the system collapses, the only way out is forward. 

In our fourth webinar for the Journalism Crisis Project, our panelists pushed against the idea that this is the moment to save journalism—in fact, ”saving” the industry is entirely the wrong paradigm. Heather Chaplin, the founding director of the journalism and design program at the New School, reminded viewers that the economic crisis facing journalism is dire. The industry’s best hope is to reimagine the free press for the twenty-first century, Chaplin said. The old model cannot be salvaged, nor should it be. “The minute that you realize, wait, my job isn’t to try to save the thing; my job is to reinvent something new—the possibility space expands exponentially,” she said. “What does the free press that we want look like, and what conditions need to be in place for it to happen?”

Answering such questions requires imagination, collaboration, and listening. “We have no metrics for success that aren’t about the industry’s business,” Chaplin said. “We measure money. We measure circulation. But how do we know if we’re serving our purpose?” Talking to communities is an essential step, as Letrell Crittenden, Program Director of Communication at Thomas Jefferson University and a fellow at the Tow Center, noted. Earlier this year, Crittenden and colleague Andrea Wenzel conducted a series of interviews in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, paying particular attention to communities of color and seeking to understand residents’ information needs. “If the goal is to keep the community abreast of vital information, both the local news community and local officials must recognize that the traditional manner in which they attempt to connect with local residents is not accessible or fully embraced by wide portions of the community,” Crittenden and Wenzel wrote, publishing their findings in April, against the backdrop of the health crisis. “Understanding how local residents consume and share information, and what they are willing to trust, is indeed a public health issue.” It’s also a requirement for journalism.

One of the necessary conditions for building a strong free press that serves the public in its entirety is to find a successful financial model—and it’s not necessarily one-size-fits-all. “Everything’s going to have to be scaled to particular communities,” Crittenden said in our webinar. “What’s working in Philadelphia isn’t necessarily going to work in Pittsburgh.” 

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center, agreed. “One of the things that has drained out of the free press in the past few years has been the idea that we should be building policies and funding models that are genuinely pluralistic.” Whether the news outlets of the present and future turn to foundation funding, nonprofit models, community investment, public capital, or some combination of each, the financial models of the past are behind us. 

The public needs journalism, and journalists need to ask where the current model is failing, and how it can be rebuilt.

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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). 

  • CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: 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).

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

  • THE FUTURE FOR TRIBUNE AND MCCLATCHY: Today marks two significant deadlines for major American news publishers Tribune and McClatchy: at Tribune, yesterday was the first day its largest shareholders were allowed to trade again after a months-long pause, and at McClatchy, today is the final day for bids on the bankrupt company’s assets. “The next 48 hours may decide the fate of two of America’s largest newspaper chains that collectively serve almost a fifth of all American local newspaper readers,” Ken Doctor wrote for NiemanLab on Monday, unrolling some of the possible outcomes for both companies. For CJR, Savannah Jacobson published a deep-dive on the founder of Alden Global Capital, Tribune’s largest shareholder. And for yesterday’s Media Today newsletter, Jon Allsop explored the possibility that McClatchy could become a nonprofit.
  • AUDIENCES DON’T FEEL UNDERSTOOD: The Pew Research Center reported last Thursday that 59 percent of adults surveyed felt that news organizations “don’t understand people like them,” a number that has stayed relatively steady since a similar survey in 2018. “Black Americans are far more likely than the other two groups to feel that the misunderstanding is based on their race or some other demographic trait,” Pew reported. “White Americans, on the other hand, are far more likely than the other groups to say the problem stems from political misunderstandings.” On the same day, the Knight Foundation released the results of a survey on public views of newsroom diversity (conducted before the widespread protests that followed George Floyd’s murder), noting that half of Republican respondents wanted to see an increase in political diversity across newsrooms, while half of of Democratic respondents valued an increase in racial diversity. “Do underrepresented groups feel that the news media understands them and anticipates their unique information needs?” researchers Jesse Holcomb and Helen Stubbs asked, noting that such questions “display the real, day-to-day impact of staffing decisions in America’s news organizations.” (For a deeper dive into trust and local news, read “Listening is not enough: Mistrust and local news in urban and suburban Philly,” from CJR and the Tow Center.)
  • FREELANCERS ARE INVISIBLE VICTIMS: Last week, Molly McCluskey reported for the Poynter Institute that many of the media publications attempting to grapple with the economic fallout from covid-19 and its implications for journalism have left freelance journalists out of the equation. “As their work dries up and their safety nets fail, they have neither quit nor been fired; and so, when it comes to the toll of the coronavirus on our profession, they are simply … not counted,” McCluskey said. In March, soon after covid-19 became a front-page story in the US, Leah Sottile wrote for CJR about the dilemmas facing freelancers. “Could a journalist, trying to be brave, contract a virus we don’t fully understand for the benefit of an outlet that isn’t going to pay a dime toward health insurance?” Sottile wrote. “Might some publications fail to pay entirely, if we’re staring down a recession?” The answers to such questions are grim. Study Hall has been compiling a list of changes to freelance budgets by publication.
  • AUSTRALIA’S GOVERNMENT STEPS IN: The Australian federal government has agreed to provide funding for regional news publications that have suffered revenue losses as a result of the economic fallout from covid-19. The $50 million in available funds have been allocated to just over a hundred applicants, with the greatest percentage of the funding going to television news, followed by publishing, then radio outlets. Some supporters of national Australian broadcaster ABC have criticized the government for funding regional outlets while failing to support ABC, which is under a funding freeze and has recently announced program cuts and hundreds of layoffs. The Guardian has more.
  • PARTNERING WITH LOCAL BROADCASTING: ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network announced last week that it would open six new partnership positions for reporters working in local public broadcasting—offering collaboration, guidance, and resources for accountability reporting. “At a time of cutbacks throughout the news industry, and particularly by mainstream news organizations, public radio and television serve an increasingly important role in informing their communities,” ProPublica said in the announcement. Though the network has only been established for a few years, several investigations supported by the network have published breaking stories that succeeded in holding power to account. Last year, in a Local Reporting Network partnership, the Anchorage Daily News worked on a project with support from ProPublica that reported on sexual violence in rural Alaska. Following the investigation, the Attorney General of the United States declared a state of emergency, and the project won a Pulitzer Prize. (Applications for the new round of Local Reporting Network partnerships are due at midnight on July 12).
  • GOOGLE WILL PAY PUBLISHERS: Last week, for CJR, Mathew Ingram explored the implications of Google’s recent announcement that it will pay some publishers for news, though the details, Ingram says, remain hazy. “It’s true that the Google News Initiative has given journalists, media companies, and industry groups tens of millions of dollars,” he wrote. “But it’s also true that Google has never paid publishers directly for news; rather, it’s vowed repeatedly that it would never do so.” In 2018, Ingram wrote about how Facebook and Google became two of the most prominent and prolific funders of the journalism industry. “There may be a philosophical victory here, but it probably won’t make a life-altering difference to any of the companies involved, as the tech giants continue to eat up all of the internet’s advertising revenue,” Ingram wrote in his Thursday newsletter. (Elsewhere, the New York Times announced that it would discontinue its partnership with Apple News, and Facebook vowed to tweak its algorithms to boost original reporting).
  • FURLOUGHS TURN TO LAYOFFS: Last week, the CBC reported that SaltWire Network, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, would lay off 109 previously furloughed employees. In March, SaltWire Network furloughed 240 employees, more than half of whom are still temporarily out of work. The layoffs took place in newsrooms in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Willy Palov, the president of the union representing the company, expressed hope that more news consumers might invest in subscriptions and financial support. “We saw during the covid crisis that information is still important, reliable information,” he said. But furloughed employees remain concerned about their futures.
  • RETURN OF THE ALT-WEEKLY: Poynter reported last week that alt-weekly DigBoston, which paused its print publication in March, resumed again after staffers noticed returning TV ads for local car dealerships and reached out to tap their advertising departments. The Dig has also implemented new strategies for increasing revenues during the covid-19 crisis: soliciting reader support, experimenting with online events, and implementing a new membership program. Kristen Hare, who has been tracking layoffs for Poynter since April, called the news “a teeny, tiny ray of light.” In other news, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser has made adjustments and will lay off twelve employees instead of the announced thirty-one.
  • CALL THEM “CASUAL PAYMENTS”: In a response to James Ball’s recent article on the folly of investing hope in micropayments, Dominic Young disagrees that subscriptions are the only solution. When working for a large news publisher, years ago, Young writes, “our modeling kept coming up against the same Gordian knot. While the marginal economics of subscription were, and are, compelling, the high value of each subscriber was hard to match with sufficient numbers of them to create a compelling business overall.” The biggest hurdles to overcome, Young writes, are the disaggregation of holistic products and barriers to payment—registration forms, payment pages, anything a consumer sees as a hassle. “Payment needs to be as casual as browsing,” Young says. “Nothing can change until someone creates the essential building blocks of a publisher-centric network with casual payments at its core.”
  • MORE LAYOFFS, CUTS: Last week, KPBS in San Diego laid off three employees and moved fifteen employees from full-time to part-time, Current reported. Soon after, Houston Public Media laid off thirteen employees.



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. And the Press Freedom Defense Fund has announced an Emergency Relief Program for professional journalists in the US—you can find the application here.

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