Firing journalists won’t save the media

Media in the Age of Trump

Dear Media Movers and Shakers,

In the great tradition of American journalism, I thought that I would try, as pretentious as this sounds, and if you will forgive the cliche, to speak truth to power. That used to mean telling it like it is to the politicians, financiers and business people who dominate society. Now, more and more, it means telling the truth to the people who own, control, and run American journalism. 

At the height of a unique American madness, when the nominee of a major political party has proven himself to be not just unfit for any public office, but corrupt in every known aspect of his life; at this moment, when “You’re Fired!” is the reality TV buzz phrase that launched Trump into national politics and toward the White House–at this critical moment of American democracy, the establishment media is in the process of firing thousands of people. 

In my lifetime, the media has never been in such disarray. I am writing to ask if such devastations are necessary. I am also writing to ask you to consider what the consequences have been, and will be, of this ravaging.

In midtown Manhattan, around the corner from where a lot of this upheaval is happening, the Broadway revival of Ben Hecht’s legendary play about newspaper journalists, The Front Page, is getting raves. The New Yorker exulted, “The best of Broadway. An outstanding Front Page, with a surfeit of fantastic actors who give the production everything they’ve got.” I’ll bet they do. This Broadway sentimentalizing of the legendary heyday of print journalism sends chills down my spine. It is like the sentimentalizing, in the 19th century, of Native Americans as “noble savages” at the very moment they were being exterminated. 

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A few years ago, I told an editor at a certain newspaper how ecstatic I was that an essay I had written was appearing on the cover of his section. He chuckled. “If anyone even knows where the cover is any more,” he said. Two and a half cheers for all the new platforms, devices, and modes of news delivery, but imagine the publication of the Pentagon papers being splashed, or rather, dabbed, across all three inches of your smartphone, even as you are texting, Instagramming, updating your Facebook page, and scrolling through email.  I worry that as you flirt dangerously with the newspaper as an occasion for diversion by filling its virtual pages with videos and countless lifestyle-convenience articles, you are on the path to saving your newspapers by destroying what makes them newspapers.

I can see certain editors rolling their eyes as they read this bleating prole who doesn’t seem to know what they are up against. But I think I know. Harried beyond belief, you have one foot on the galloping horse of your institutions as you try to retain high standards of truthfulness and integrity, the other foot on the tearing horse of commerce, as you try and keep your institutions alive. I understand that, in your eyes, moral objections and glances into the past as lessons for the future are nostalgic and naive.  

But of course a great newspaper is not just any institution. The rise of newspapers occurred in tandem with the rise of modern democracy. There was no Daily Carolingian in the year 758. No one was dashing in horse-drawn carts to the newsstands to read about the latest battle in the Hundred Years War. As the Enlightenment unfolded and royal dynasties fell, as mercantile economies gave way to industrial economies, as monarchy became replaced by participatory democracy, modern journalism evolved into the powerful check on all the social, political, and economic forces democracy had unleashed that posed a threat to democracy. 

What has happened in America while all this change in the media has been going on? The war in Iraq, crippling Bush tax cuts that made the war as much an economic catastrophe as a human one, the institutionalizing of right-wing extremism, a concentration of stupendous wealth among a small number of people the likes of which this country has never seen, the slow decimation of public spaces, a growing racial divide, the subsuming of just about every aspect of life into the marketplace, a coarsening of the culture that normalizes predatory behavior–commercial, financial, even sexual–even as we see it exposed and condemned.  

 

Like all journalists, I am attuned to bullshit. If you are yielding in panic to a new age, you are not adapting to it. If you think you are going to accumulate enough readers among young people who are used to going from one news source to another rather than sticking with one distinguished brand, you are deluding yourselves. If you think you are going to save your institution by cutting loose all the people who made it different from competing institutions, you are actually providing readers with one less reason to read your own less and less distinctive publication.   

The idea that only journalists who came of age in the digital era can thrive in it, so popular among middle-aged and late middle-aged media executives who live in terror of the digital age, is an insult to the intelligence and ambition of young journalists, who hunger to use the techniques of digital journalism to practice the traditional values of journalism that inspired them to enter the profession in the first place. These are people inspired by the reach and power and immediacy of digital techniques to want to expand the parameters of media’s traditional values. They are not people so intimidated or threatened by digital culture that they want to shrink journalism itself.   

Instead the younger–and more affordable–journalists who come on in the wake of the waves of buyouts and layoffs–and abandoned retirement plans–find themselves in a short-changed environment, bereft of older allies and mentors, confronted with the imperative to act young and cutting edge when what they want is to be fearless, impassioned journalists. And if they don’t meet the expectations of their middle-aged overlords, they also become expendable, which is all the worse for them since they are usually in far more precarious economic circumstances than the older journalists who have been discarded. 

 

You cannot change the nature of journalism with the same ease and lack of significant consequences with which you can change the nature of retail. Ask Jeff Bezos. Amazon has nearly extinguished the culture of small bookstores and pulled the rug out from under traditional book publishing, But people still read, thousands of books are published a year, and book publishers still go about their business. Yet when Bezos bought the Washington Post, the justifiable fear was that one of the country’s pillars of journalism would falter, and with it, another underpinning structure of democracy.

On the contrary. Rather than commence massive layoffs, Bezos expanded the newsroom and hired dozens more editors and reporters. And though he’s used advanced technology to the hilt in order to transform the newsroom, he’s put all the new techniques in the service of traditional journalism. In this election cycle, The Washington Post has been in the forefront of the press when it comes to criticizing and exposing Trump. No newspaper has enraged the celebrity demagogue more. No wonder the Post‘s editor, Mary Baron, has paintings of typewriters adorning the fancy new walls of his high-tech office. 

Bezos made The Washington Post a private company, and perhaps it’s time for the prestigious news organizations that have been lopping off their limbs in order to stay in the race to consider some type of restructuring, or even to think about the last resort of selling themselves off to a benevolent multi-billionaire committed to the practice of old-fashioned journalism in the most advanced digital way. Maybe the only future for what you might call the legacy news organizations, the only ones with the authority and prestige to serve as a democratic check on undemocratic forces, is to avoid business failure by getting out of the realm of business altogether.

Because, with all due respect, you don’t seem to be practicing business strategy with any great success. I can’t make heads or tails of whether you are economic successes or not. Your quarterly reports make no sense. Digital ads are up; print ads are down; operating revenue is up; general revenue is down because of severance payments for buyouts and layoffs that will, so the reasoning goes, save money in the future. 

In the meantime, like so many Rasputins, the marketing people continue the mystical patter about mobile platforms, and video, and streaming, and algorithms, all of these concepts and terminology that strike terror into the hearts of newspaper people who grew up in the previous era, and who accede to whatever they hear because they find themselves in an alien realm without familiar guideposts to navigate by. As a result, the fear of being left behind disguises itself as the resolve to advance boldly into the future.

Real flesh and blood human beings are being sacrificed to innovations that have yet to pay off; they are being sacrificed because these innovations are not paying off. 

I depend so much on The New York Times that if, heaven forbid, a subscription started to cost a thousand dollars a year, I would take out another student loan to pay it. The New York Times, to pick on my most cherished publication, is so distinguished, so prestigious, so good at what it does, that it could sell that beautiful overpriced testament to its own vanity on Eighth Avenue, move into a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, save its employees, and remain one of the elemental supports and protections of our democracy.  

But I’m a dreamer, a dispensable freelancer with the appearance of an ant as you look down on me standing on the sidewalk many stories below your lairs, shaking my puny fist at the way you are frantically diminishing your authority and prestige. Nothing is going to stop the ax from falling, I know that. And maybe it will all work out, and you will stride successfully into the rapidly changing future. But at what price? My fear is the headline proclaiming your victory: MEDIA SURVIVES! GOOD NEWS FOR THE VENAL, ABUSIVE AND DISHONEST POWERS THAT BE. BAD NEWS FOR EVERYONE ELSE. 

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Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. His forthcoming book, The Draw: A Memoir, will be published in April.