Washington Post public editor: Bezos’ billions reveal the systemic flaws in journalism

What will become of us? All of us, yes, but more specifically those of us employed in journalism, who are supposed to be telling the story of an unfolding pandemic-related disaster even while our own industry is eaten alive by it. Gaming out what will happen to the news media itself in the coming months and years can be a very grim exercise, depending on where you stand. It is almost enough to make you wish that your boss was the world’s richest man. 

The problem is that most of America’s news outlets make their money from advertisers, not directly from consumers of news. So though the entire nation is locked inside consuming news more voraciously than ever, all of the news outlets are facing an existential economic threat: the businesses that typically buy the ads are suffering because everyone is just locked inside consuming news more voraciously than ever, and so they are not buying ads. Though the tangible value of news to humanity has never been higher—indeed, even reporters who are not grandiose narcissists can finally say their jobs have life-and-death implications—the economic structure that supports the production of news is eroding fast. Furloughs and layoffs are now coursing through the industry. No corner of the media is immune. Newspapers are particularly hard-hit; alt-weeklies face “total annihilation.” 

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One of the very few relatively safe harbors from this storm is in the sheltering arms of a billionaire. Jeff Bezos, the richest businessman in America, bought the Washington Post in 2013 for a paltry $250 million, a figure that represents about one five-hundredth of Bezos’ current wealth. For owners with ten- (or eleven- or twelve-) figure net worths, prestigious media outlets are luxury goods—like a painting or a sports team, but without the promise of high returns. This has always been true, and it has always made journalists uncomfortable, even while they have always been grateful for any opportunity to be insulated from the fickle demands of the market. It is a national failure that we have allowed journalism, a legitimate public good, to fall prey to the philanthropy model. Very rich people prop up a few shiny showpieces, while the vast majority of everything else falls ever deeper into disrepair. This dynamic, which now afflicts everything from art museums to public health, grants wealthy people credit for privately doing through philanthropy a fraction of what we should be publicly doing by taxing them. 

The coming economic crisis will magnify this. The (financially) weakest portion of the news industry will die off, as it did in the 2008 financial crisis. Even if newspapers are able to cobble together enough income to survive, a large number of them have already cut their quality so deeply over the past decade that there will be no point in buying them. And so people won’t. 

The Post, meanwhile, should thrive. A spokesperson says there are no plans for layoffs. Reporters I spoke to say there are no rumors of impending doom. An email to staffers yesterday from publisher Fred Ryan echoed the positive outlook. “The financial foundation of the Post remains strong both because of our innovations in advertising and our years of substantial growth in subscriptions. Thankfully, although we are offering a significant number of coronavirus-related stories for free, readers are showing support for our journalism by subscribing in record numbers,” Ryan wrote. 

It is good that the Post can survive this downturn. It is good for the paper’s many fine journalists, and it is good for readers who will have continued access to the important stories that they publish. But it is also true that the broader system is bad for America.

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News outlets owned by the very rich are much like the children of the very rich. Their advantage is not necessarily that their parents have been so gauche as to merely shower them with cash; rather, they have provided them with the best education, and the best connections, and the best environment in which to enable them to land that job at Goldman Sachs. 

Likewise, it is not as though Jeff Bezos is simply pumping money from his own nearly bottomless bank account into the Post every week (though he could). Instead, the investments that he has made in the paper’s editorial quality and resources over the past seven years are now reaping their rewards. Journalism is expensive. The small number of publications that can afford to spend the money to produce a great deal of good journalism will naturally rise to the top of the industry. Their cash-strapped competitors, unable to spend enough to compete, will sink. Readers, themselves cutting back and unable to spend widely, will inevitably consolidate around a small number of very good publications. 

In every crisis lies an opportunity for the rich. Investors wealthy enough to hoard cash can scoop up bargains when financial crises strike, and publications rich enough to maintain their staffing levels and quality can scoop up the readers—and the journalists—abandoning weaker publications. Thus the industry consolidates into a smaller number of more powerful platforms, a process that will continue until the government intervenes to change the existing economic model that supports journalism. 

It is good that the Post can survive this downturn. It is good for the paper’s many fine journalists, and it is good for readers who will have continued access to the important stories that they publish. But it is also true that the broader system is bad for America. Journalism, a vital ingredient in a functional democracy, is now inexorably tied to profit to the extent that the nation’s best publications have to feel thankful for having a billionaire owner, rather than angry that they need one. 

In the past month Amazon’s stock price has gone up. Bezos is richer. That wealth has been produced by thousands of Amazon warehouse workers, who are so angry about the lack of workplace safety during the crisis that many of them have walked off the job, and been retaliated against by Jeff Bezos’s own managers—a story that has been covered by, among many others, the Post

Even as we all cling fearfully to our own tenuous jobs, it is important for journalists to remember who we are here to comfort, and who to afflict.

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Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.

TOP IMAGE: Jeff Bezos photo via Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons