The Media Today

Making Choices

October 16, 2023
Art by Darrel Frost

In June, Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, an employment firm that tracks labor-market trends, reported that the media industry had shed 17,436 jobs so far in 2023—the highest rate on record, exceeding even the brutal early months of the pandemic. A figure like that is sometimes presented as grimly ineluctable: bosses say their hands are tied by economic conditions; there is a sense that the media business is unsupportable, doomed. But our industry is also, in many ways, the result of choices, big and small, made over time. Consider the Washington Post, which announced last week that it would offer buyouts in order to eliminate two hundred and forty positions. Since 2021, the Post has suffered significant drops in paid subscriptions, print revenue, and digital ads. But Patty Stonesifer, the interim CEO, insisted to staff that the business is in robust health; cuts are necessary, she said, because managers grew the paper too fast based on projections that turned out to be overly optimistic. Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post, maintains that it should be run as a business, not a charity. Now the newsroom faces the consequences of a pileup of choices, ultimately driven by a billionaire.

Many newsrooms have recently made the choice to unionize; bosses have chosen how to respond (or not). Last week, the union that represents journalists at Politico and E&E News hand-delivered a letter to Goli Sheikholeslami, the company’s CEO, demanding that management “get serious” about better pay and job protections, while more than forty unionized staffers at Reviewed, a product review site owned by Gannett, staged a walkout to coincide with Amazon’s Prime Big Deals Day, in protest of what they describe as bosses dragging their feet ahead of contract negotiations. Last month, Gannett posted a pair of reporting jobs to cover Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, respectively—a decision that the company said would help “save local journalism” amid cuts to coverage of traditional local-news beats, such as city hall and high school sports. (As I wrote, Swift and Beyoncé hires are defensible in isolation but they will not in any way save journalism.)

The choices we might actually make to save journalism—or, at least, to steer a better course through the lashing tempest—are at the heart of CJR’s Business Model Issue, which debuts today. Feven Merid, our staff writer, collected advice from fifteen people who are doing interesting things in the industry. Some of their ideas put a spin on successful forms of the past (the intentional curation of the newspaper, but in digital form, as a more anchored approach than cutting content loose to float, atomized, online); others embrace authorial voice and style. 

Putting the media industry on a sustainable footing will also involve experimentation. Lauren Williams—the cofounder of Capital B, a news outlet that serves Black communities—told Merid that major philanthropic funders need to “think outside of just investigative journalism—funding the ‘big impact’ sort of news that makes a lot of waves—and start thinking about the impact that local journalism has on everyday people’s lives, on elections.” In a piece for the issue, Megan Greenwell finds evidence of that starting to happen. In recent years, local and regional foundations have invested significantly in journalistic projects that serve communities’ basic civic and informational needs—yet these foundations still “don’t describe themselves as being in the media business.” 

Then there are calls for media, or segments of it, to decouple from the market economy altogether. “We need a paradigm shift so we’re not just seeing journalism as a business, but we’re seeing it as an essential public service, which democracy absolutely requires regardless of whether the market will support it,” Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Merid. “What I propose is an ambitious, even utopian model—a truly public model, where we can guarantee that all members of society have access to a baseline level of news and information. And that’s going to require much more public support than we currently have right now.”

At minimum, the journalism industry will need to move on from its dependence on tech giants—which have repeatedly dangled tantalizing prospects of collaboration and support, only to leave the press hanging (and out of work). “The magnitude of venture capitalists’ initial excitement in a media product doesn’t necessarily translate to revenue growth of the same proportions,” Emily Russell observes, in an audio feature for this issue about the podcast industry. “That doesn’t mean the product has failed.” Amid a year of cuts—at Spotify’s podcast division, SiriusXM, Pushkin Industries, and, most recently, WNYC—Russell spoke with staffers at Maximum Fun, a podcast company that, in March, made the decision to convert to ownership by its employees, and other audio journalists finding new ways to produce, distribute, and monetize their projects. 

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Elsewhere in the issue, Will Tavlin describes the relationship between media companies and retailers as “e-commerce becomes increasingly important to outlets’ bottom lines.” Product review verticals may be a viable, and increasingly popular, revenue stream—though, as he writes, when considered as service journalism, they “may rate poorly.” Mary Retta focuses her attention on Ebony, as its new CEO aims to reimagine a historic magazine as a brand, “a one-stop shop for Black upward mobility.” Hamilton Nolan considers the weight of artificial intelligence on journalism’s labor force: “It is up to all of us,” he writes, “to unite around standards, before we’ve lost our chance.” And Danny Funt writes that we’re entering a “retro era for digital media, in which everything comes by way of a personal message delivered to your inbox: voicemail, of a kind,” as journalists turn toward “engagement and loyalty.” 

Recently, David Zaslav, the CEO of CNN’s corporate parent, chose Mark Thompson to be the network’s new chairman. Thompson, who started work last week—following a disastrous run by Chris Licht—warned his employees, in a video message, that there is much work ahead: “This company is still nowhere near ready for the future,” he declared. The same could be said of the media industry as a whole. But we can still get there. The choice is ours. (You can find the whole Business Model Issue here.)

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, a missile fired from the direction of Israel struck and killed Issam Abdallah, a video journalist at Reuters who was covering an exchange of fire in southern Lebanon; six other journalists who were nearby sustained injuries. (We’ll have more on the tragic incident in tomorrow’s newsletter.) Meanwhile, Semafor’s Max Tani reports that veteran national security reporters at the Wall Street Journal raised concerns prior to the publication of an explosive story—which has since been contested—claiming that Iran played a direct role in the planning of Hamas’s attack on Israel last weekend. (The Journal stands by its reporting.) And Tani also reported that MSNBC had “quietly taken three of its Muslim broadcasters out of the anchor’s chair” since the attack—though the network said this was coincidental, and one of the trio returned as an anchor yesterday.
  • Ben Smith, the top editor at Semafor, reports that the NewsGuild, a leading union for journalists, is seeking to obtain his email correspondence with a source, Mike Elk, as the union defends a lawsuit that Elk filed alleging that its leaders defamed him when he tried to report allegations of sexual misconduct against a union official in Pittsburgh. Smith wrote about the allegations in 2020, when he was the media columnist at the Times. The Times described the NewsGuild’s efforts to obtain Smith’s correspondence as troubling, especially coming “from a union that represents journalists,” but the president of the NewsGuild hit back, arguing that the union has a right to defend itself in court and pledging to fight “attempts to undermine our growing power and solidarity.”
  • Last week, I wrote in this newsletter about TVN, a Polish network, owned by the US media giant Warner Bros. Discovery, that has come under sustained attack by Poland’s hard-right government and its allies. Various Polish media-watchers told me that they feared for the future of TVN and other independent news organizations should the governing Law and Justice Party return to power following elections that were held yesterday—but so far, exit polls suggest that, while Law and Justice will win the most seats in Parliament, a grouping of more liberal opposition parties are likely to be able to form a coalition government. Notes from Poland has more details of the results.
  • In other European press-freedom news, French officials opened an investigation into whether Marina Ovsyannikova—the Russian state-TV journalist who famously protested the war in Ukraine live on air last year, and is now in exile—had been poisoned after she fell ill in Paris, but Ovsyannikova has since said that blood tests showed no evidence of poison. Elsewhere, London-based staffers with the BBC’s Persian service have reported increased levels of harassment and threats by the Iranian regime. And today marks six years since the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in Malta. 
  • And ProPublica’s Daniel Golden, a former newspaper reporter in Massachusetts, asks how we should remember local papers, as more and more of them vanish. As local news declines, the industry is “taking on a halo of everything that used to be good about America. They’ve come to symbolize not just halcyon days of neighborly virtues…but the very ‘bedrock of American democracy,’” Golden writes. And yet “if my own experience was any indication, the reality was considerably more complicated.”

New from CJR: The Business Model Issue

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.