The Media Today

Can Journalism Be Fun Again?

February 23, 2024
An empty newsroom in the Czech Republic. Photo/Petr Mlch (CTK via AP Images)

Samantha Stokes is a reporter at Business Insider, covering startups and venture capital firms. At some point last year, feeling adrift and disconnected from her colleagues in the industry, she started thinking about throwing a party for journalists—a way to overcome, as she put it, “the feeling of isolation that makes this job a lot harder than it already is.”

Initially, she imagined it as a chance for younger journalists in New York to get to know each other better. “I graduated journalism school in 2019 and only had ten months to live in a normal media world, not even time to get my own footing,” she said. “And then everything shut down.”

Earlier this year, after the “massive monthlong stretch of everybody getting laid off” began, Stokes finally put her plan in motion. She worried that she might not get enough people—instead, the response was overwhelming. Within a couple of weeks, more than 250 people had RSVP’d. She had to change the venue, and the date. “I meant for this to be a networking thing, or a chance to maybe find someone with an open role,” she said. “But it seems like people really just want to talk to other people about the state of the industry. I get the sense there will be a lot of commiserating, like a journalist therapy session.”

It’s easy to forget that journalism drinks once meant something else entirely. I’m old enough to have once been deluged by them—monthly magazine drinks at The Scratcher, summer softball booze fests at Tap a Keg, Gawker nights at The Magician. There was a time when seemingly every month had a launch party, a holiday party, a whatever party. Every once in a while someone would show up with a corporate card and buy everyone a round of drinks. It was sometimes followed by the inevitable collapse-of-the-publication party, but even then you could be excused for feeling more what’s next than end of the line.

Then the vibe shifted. The layoffs last year and this rolled out in increments. The sense of dread just went on. Even if you were initially spared, you went to the bar and bought some drinks for your friends who got the ax and sneaked out early, knowing your time would surely come. (Mine did in November, at Vice, after what must have been three or four iterations of layoff “parties.”)

The parties have now formally become wakes. Earlier this month, the National Press Club, in DC, threw what sounded like the saddest party in journalism history—a free taco night at a local establishment (name: Reliable Source) that had all the appeal of a mutual aid society luncheon. “You can’t just do nothing,” the Press Club president told the Times. It feels like the rallying cry this moment deserves.

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Dejected people always think they can predict the future, and that it will look like the darkest elements of the past. (This week’s chapter of my old company’s collapse certainly makes it hard to see beyond the present.) But if you were around in journalism long enough to remember the good times, you know better than to think that anything in media lasts forever. If you were around before the internet and the apps turned everyone into entrepreneurs and everything into a valuation, you know that the best times aren’t always the flushest—in fact, it’s those moments of deprivation when the most interesting things happen. So, you know, maybe it’s time for a genuine party. People won’t have fun reading, watching, or listening to what we do unless we have fun making it. It has to start somewhere.

Here at CJR, we’ve kept a close eye on the shake-ups in the media world so far this year. Cameron Joseph documented the demise of the Washington bureau, explaining how having fewer regional reporters in DC isn’t just bad for journalism, it’s bad for democracy. Feven Merid talked to culture writer Israel Daramola about what the layoffs at Pitchfork mean for the future of music journalism. Kevin Lind took a look at what happened when researchers in Pennsylvania tried to give away subscriptions to local papers. (Spoiler: it didn’t go well.) And Sarah Grevy Gotfredsen at the Tow Center shared a new report on how partisan outlets are filling the local news void.

We’ve also noticed some promising bright spots. James Ball made the case that Reddit has become the most interesting, even civilized, place for some forms of news; and new legislation in California, modeled on similar laws in Australia and Canada, offers a glimmer of hope for journalism’s finances. (Bill Grueskin took a deeper dive into how the Australia bill worked, and what might happen here, in 2022.)

Also worth considering:

*Christian Lorentzen, in the fall issue of Liberties, looked back with unsentimental fondness on those supposed “good old days” of New York media.

*The New Yorker asked if journalists are ready for an “extinction-level event.”

*Semafor cautioned that 2024 is not likely to bring immediate salvation for journalism, at least not for the political press.

*At the height of the pandemic, Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic, posted a picture of an empty subway car on Instagram, with a caption I think about all the time. “Come to New York City,” he wrote. “Start over.… You are tasked with building a new art world and a new city. I and millions of others did this here once-upon-a-glorious-time. Now it is all of your turns. Grab your tools, brushes, kids and come to NYC. You are the luckiest people in the world.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Can Julian Assange appeal his extradition to the US? A British court will decide.

Josh Hersh is an editor at CJR.