When the United States entered the Great Recession, newsroom employment started to plummet. During the first half of 2009, more than a hundred papers closed; ten thousand news workers lost their jobs. In the years that followed, even after the economy picked up, outlets continued shedding reporters as digital media cut into the print advertising business and social networks replaced news organizations as aggregators of information. According to the Pew Research Center, since the recession hit, American newspaper jobs have fallen 51 percent.
In 2016, Donald Trump offered an uneasy reprieve; the more the press obsessed over him, it seemed, the higher the number of viewers and subscribers. The “Trump bump” brought news, and how it’s made, to the center of public interest. Some of the benefits—felt mainly by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC—trickled down to local newsrooms, but not enough. Through the Trump years, America’s newspapers continued to suffer. For every happy quarterly earnings report at a cable network, a community lost a star reporter, or an entire newsroom.
It was against that backdrop, early this year, that the coronavirus erupted. The spread of the pandemic has since killed close to two hundred and forty thousand Americans and cost some thirty million their jobs, including at least thirty-six thousand people in the journalism industry. Some editors took pay cuts, others were laid off, and a few outlets shuttered. Reporters were cast out by the dozen. Now the winter is upon us, and the pandemic is worsening. The human costs will be severe, as will the stakes for news advertising revenue and subscriptions. Many small newsrooms received federal bailout money, but the prospect of another tranche is grim. It’s also mired in the politics of Washington, where Republicans could hold control of the Senate and Joe Biden is set to replace Trump—now a resentful, misinformation-spewing lame duck.
Once January arrives and Trump leaves the White House, it’s likely that the subscription surges and record viewership enjoyed by the biggest newsrooms during his tenure will begin to recede. “MSNBC and other outlets that thrived on resistance to Mr. Trump may see their audiences fade,” Ken Lerer, a veteran media investor and adviser, recently told Ben Smith, of the Times. The audience for Smith’s paper will also “cool off,” Lerer predicted. Most news organizations have little budgetary slack, which means that this painful year may soon turn over into another.
All of that is, in a sense, the bad news. But, of course, none of it is news at all. Across the country, journalism has been grappling with these challenges for years, even as many of us have been distracted by the chaos coming from the Oval Office. We can now treat the situation as an opportunity. Our industry, one of critical public importance, needs to be rebuilt and reconceived. What do we want to keep, and what should we let go of? How should we think about storytelling and who gets to tell those stories? Where do we belong, and where should we go next?
The journalism business must be rebuilt and reconceived.
This issue of CJR is a snapshot of an industry in flux, during a time in which we can mourn what’s lost and begin thinking of what we’re better off without. In columns, features, data, and images, we examine the media in transition.
A few key ideas emerge. First, the rise of the individual and the decline of institutions. Many of us would love to work for a big, stable company with hefty benefits, but companies like that don’t exist much anymore in journalism. Those that do are often beset by the troubles of any American institution—racism, sexism, inequity. Lately, more journalists are deciding to go independent. As Clio Chang reports in her profile of Substack, the result is a proliferation of emerging voices, who sometimes earn paychecks that dwarf what they could have made in a newsroom. But opportunity is never universal, as Chang writes; the people succeeding on their own are largely those who already rose to prominence within existing systems—on Substack, the most popular newsletters are primarily by conservative (or otherwise contrarian) white men. The same people tend to be the most comfortable working without a net. “Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor,” Chang observes. “And that is the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom—and the racism or harassment or vulture-venture capitalism one encountered there—but it’s all the way out, on one’s own.” Others have found a home on Twitter, as Leah Sottile describes in her piece on journalism’s “first responders,” and on YouTube, as Mary Retta writes: “Individuals with large followings and the time to devote to research are seizing the opportunity to challenge the dominance of mainstream outlets.”
Our reinvention starts as the most noxiously anti-press government in American history begins to wind down.
We’re also seeing newsrooms re-center themselves in their communities. As local newspapers have disappeared, media chains have consolidated coverage into regional hubs, which place reporters far away from the governments and institutions that demand their attention. A movement is growing to reestablish the bond between news outlets and their readers—and to shed some of journalism’s oldest tenets in the process. “We’ve got to serve our community’s information needs,” Tasneem Raja, the editor of The Oaklandside, tells Jack Herrera, of her newsroom’s relationship to Oakland. For three months, Raja embarked on a series of listening sessions with artists, community organizers, healthcare practitioners, and business owners, asking them what they need from a local news site. Then she designed coverage around their answers. In a column based on his experience as a founder of City Bureau, a civic journalism nonprofit on Chicago’s South Side, Darryl Holliday describes the sense of mission he felt recently: “As I witnessed the collective efforts taking shape around me this summer, I considered, not for the first time, the role that journalists occupy in a community—and our failure to address the fundamental human needs within it,” he writes. “I wondered: What is the mutual aid equivalent for local news?”
Another recurring theme has been the strength of the organized and outspoken worker. Data from our colleagues at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the International Center for Journalists, who conducted an epic survey of news workers in the wake of the pandemic, shows a picture of a press that is professionally weary, yet determined. That spirit has carried into newsrooms—at the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, and elsewhere—as journalists have confronted their managers about the exclusion of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color, in terms of bylines and for whom stories are written. Many of those frustrations have existed for decades. What is different now, and is certain to carry into 2021, is the role of unions in codifying promises to “do better.” As Maya Binyam writes, “In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, professionals spun calls for police abolition into stimuli for workplace redress.” News workers aimed to seize the moment while “bosses, compelled to do moral good but calculating the economic losses of a global pandemic, were caught in a crisis of indecision.” Unions, she continues, have made newsroom diversity a central plank of their negotiations. In her reporting, Binyam finds that persuading managers to commit to equity is no easy task.
We also need new ownership models. First came the news conglomerate, then the chain, then private equity and hedge funds. All are now struggling. The coming years will bring experimentation and new overlords. Some of the emerging power brokers have made themselves known, as Savannah Jacobson outlines in a graphic. “The media industry’s shift, from an advertising-based business to one reliant on subscribers and benefactors, has critical implications for the form and veracity of coverage,” Jacobson writes. “In looking at who is investing in what, we can observe what seems most promising—and what risks sacrificing journalistic independence.” Nonprofits will play an ever-increasing role, and the notion of public funding for journalism—enjoyed, in the United States, by PBS, NPR, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—now looks increasingly appealing. Abe Streep profiles John Rodriguez, a local publisher in Pueblo, Colorado, who made the case to his town’s leaders that if journalism is a public service, it ought to be publicly funded. (“This isn’t just about news,” Rodriguez wrote them in an email. “Local media also drives the local economy.”) We can expect worker-owned projects like Defector and Brick House to proliferate, though we’ll never entirely lose the hedge-funders, as Alex Norcia writes in his story about Project M, through which an ex–finance guy is investing in his own niche market: metalheads.
The Trump era has tested, and largely broken, the idea that any newsroom, and indeed any reporter, can remain removed from the news. That may well be for the good, a shift toward transparency that acknowledges people’s subjectivity. At the same time, we’ve seen outlets publishing more commentary, as Adam Piore writes in his piece about the business of opinion journalism, led by the New York Times. “News is commoditized; outlets are desperate to stand out; opinionated analysis has become a crucial value proposition,” Piore finds. Sometimes, opinion writers establish deep connections with readers, enticing them to pay for news; other times, when the takes are incendiary, offensive, or baseless, they have the opposite effect.
There’s much more, including the literal transition from newsroom life to remote work. As Ruth Margalit reports, “Just as newspapers once erred in thinking that online journalism meant simply transferring print articles to the Web, a report by the International News Media Association finds that mastheads are in danger of assuming that ‘remote news operations can thrive with a simple shift of where desks are located.’ ” We have a lot of adjusting to do.
Now is the time to move on from Trump and address journalism’s greatest challenges. And so, as the most noxiously anti-press government in American history begins to wind down, our reinvention starts. The revitalization of the press is sure to consume the nation—as it will be both covered and lived by the people who chronicle it.Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.