The Media Today

Yet another brutal week for American journalism

August 9, 2019

On Wednesday, without prior warning, Pacific Standard, an award-winning magazine that has done substantive journalism on environmental and social justice, announced its imminent closure. The Social Justice Foundation, a nonprofit backed by SAGE, an academic publisher, yanked its funding from Pacific Standard; the foundation will shutter, too.

Last year, the magazine scrapped its print edition, but in recent months, it had been staffing up. According to Nicholas Jackson, the editor in chief, the Social Justice Foundation’s board just approved an ambitious, 10-year expansion plan he put forward. Jackson was blindsided when he learned, on Monday, that his magazine would be dead within two weeks. The sudden decision, he told The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, was “unethical” and possibly even illegal.

ICYMI: NPR cut me off after Tucker Carlson criticized my tweet

Pacific Standard’s situation is strange—and extremely abrupt—but it fits a clear, broader trend; as Grove writes, “In today’s Darwinian media environment, newspapers, magazines and online publications seem to be biting the dust every week—a depressing new normal.” Pacific Standard wasn’t even the only publication to announce its closure on Wednesday. The same day, Governing magazine, which focuses on state and local government, said it will cease operations in the fall. Despite recent investment, Governing proved “unsustainable as a business in today’s media environment,” management said. J. Brian Charles, an investigative reporter, recently left his job at Governing—and just last month, he joined Pacific Standard. “I feel like the Angel of Death,” he told Grove.

It’s not just individual magazines that are struggling: giants are feeling the pinch, too. On Monday, both Gannett and GateHouse, the biggest publishers in the country by circulation, reported deep revenue losses; the same day, the two companies announced that they will merge in a deal financed by private equity (at eye-watering interest rates). Gannett and GateHouse executives are betting that massive scale—the combined entity will publish one in six of America’s local newspapers—can keep them in the black, at least for a few more years. Investors don’t seem so sure: as the New York Post’s Josh Kosman and Keith J. Kelly note, shares in New Media Investment Group, GateHouse’s parent company, tanked after the merger announcement. Next week, executives will meet financiers in person to try and assuage their doubts. No matter what, job cuts seem certain.

Increasingly, the digital media landscape feels bifurcated. A small number of media companies are surviving or even thriving; those tend to have established brands with loyal readers who are prepared to hand over their money. (This week, The Guardian and The New York Times both reported growth in digital revenue; The Guardian, which previously suffered years of heavy losses, is a notable success story.) But everyone else is feeding off the scraps. The closure of Pacific Standard, in particular, is a chastening reminder that even deep-pocketed donors—touted, so often, as the industry’s saving grace—can cut good publications down at a moment’s notice. And some big-name papers are struggling to maintain and grow their paying audiences: the LA Times, which has expanded impressively under Patrick Soon-Shiong, told staff last week that digital subscription growth is way under target. (Still, it was noted, hitting the target wouldn’t cover editorial costs.)

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With ad revenue plunging and subscriber revenue, in most places, not replacing it, many media companies have become reliant on revenue streams further from their control. Social media has been one. Yesterday brought important news in that regard: The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Sahil Patel reported that Facebook has held talks with news executives about paying to license previews of news content in its app. Some industry leaders—Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, for instance—welcomed the development. So far, however, it appears that Facebook has only held talks with big, profitable publishers who need the money less than poorer rivals.

And as many commentators quickly pointed out, Facebook has a track record of hooking news outlets—for example, by prioritizing video—only to fry them with a unilateral change of approach. As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky tweeted of Facebook’s latest offer, “Morons who run digital media, I beg of you: Please don’t fall for this for the 18th time.”

Below, more on the media industry hellscape:

  • Just merge already: The impending merger between CBS and Viacom could have profound consequences for media companies: Vice reportedly wants in, and other digital publishers, including BuzzFeed, could also become targets of a combined company. Some analysts thought the merger would be announced yesterday, as CBS and Viacom announced their second-quarter earnings. But still, we wait.
  • Facebook and Apple: Facebook’s moves to add a news tab to its app are a clear response to Apple News. Facebook is hoping to entice publishers such as the Times, which balked at Apple’s terms: Apple drags publishers’ content into its app and takes half the revenue; Facebook is proposing to link out to news outlets’ own sites. Digiday’s Lucinda Southern reports that cooperation with Apple News is paying off, at least for some news organizations: Vice Media and The Stylist Group, among others, say they’ve seen spikes in traffic and revenue since March, when the app was upgraded.
  • Old Gannett and New Gannett: Ahead of the GateHouse-Gannett announcement, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds was among the observers to predict that GateHouse and its owner, New Media Investment Group, would blow away the existing leadership of Gannett once a deal goes through. Now Edmonds is revising that prediction: it appears that two of the merged company’s top three executives will come from the old Gannett.
  • It’s audio, too: On Wednesday, Entercom, one of America’s largest traditional radio companies, purchased two podcast companies: Cadence13 and Pineapple Street Media. Entercom’s acquisition of Cadence13 wasn’t much of a surprise, but the Pineapple Street deal “might turn some heads,” Nieman Lab’s Nicholas Quah writes. What does it mean for the industry? “The podcast space is in the midst of a plodding consolidation period, and this is just further evidence of that.”

Other notable stories:

  • On Wednesday, President Trump visited Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, in the wake of the mass shootings in those cities. Aides barred the media from the hospitals Trump visited; they said the trip was not a photo op, but, per Maggie Haberman, of the Times, the real goal was to keep Trump on message and make “as little news as possible.” So much for that: Trump made headlines during the visits as he tweeted broadsides at his critics; yesterday, the bad press continued. El Paso’s CBS affiliate broadcast a video, taken on a cell phone, of Trump inside a hospital there; as he met with staff, he bragged about his past crowds in the city, and joked about “crazy” Beto O’Rourke and the media.
  • For CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with John Temple, who was the editor of the Rocky Mountain News during the Columbine shooting, in 1999. This week, an essay Temple wrote for The Atlantic, about “the limits of journalism” in stopping gun violence, attracted widespread attention. “We were incessant for years—we were doing investigations related to Columbine, and to what was known and what could have been done,” Temple said. “Not much changed as a result.”
  • The Iowa State Fair opened yesterday. The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes that the procession of presidential candidates through the fair—24 are expected to attend this year—represents “everything that’s wrong” with the presidential race and press coverage of it. “The media’s search for candidate authenticity through appropriate consumption of local downscale food favorites is an old story,” he writes. “But it’s one that tells us precisely nothing about what kind of person that candidate is, let alone what sort of president they’d be.”
  • Ana Marie Cox, CJR’s public editor for the Post, argues that the paper’s high-profile fact checker column is an exercise in futility. “Trump supporters somewhat justifiably complain that it’s a Trump-specific project overly concerned with the most minute and obscure presidential utterances; they think it unfairly exaggerates petty puffery,” Cox writes. “I agree, and I also think that it dangerously minimizes the damage of Trump’s misrepresentations regarding policy.”
  • Monsanto—the agrochemical giant accused of hiding health risks linked to a widely used herbicide—monitored journalists and activists who criticized the company in order to discredit their work. According to The Guardian’s Sam Levin, Monsanto kept a spreadsheet listing more than 20 lines of attack against Carey Gillam, a Reuters reporter who wrote a book about the company’s weedkiller; staffers coordinated negative reviews of Gillam’s work, paid Google to promote them, and pressured Reuters to reassign her.
  • In recent weeks, Jonathan Weisman, an editor at the Times, has drawn criticism for his tweets about Democratic politicians of color. The author Roxane Gay was among those to criticize Weisman, who subsequently emailed Gay, her assistant, and her publisher requesting an “enormous apology.” Now Weisman seems to be on thin ice—the Times told Yashar Ali that Weisman “has repeatedly displayed poor judgment on social media” and that bosses are “closely examining what to do about it.”
  • For CJR’s series on criticism, Kim Kelly, a freelance music journalist, reflects on NPR’s decision to stop working with her after Tucker Carlson condemned her political tweets on his Fox News show. NPR told Kelly that her “activist stance” was in conflict with its standards. But “arts criticism comes from the heart and the gut; cutting out the human parts—our opinions—leaves the whole thing bloodless,” Kelly writes. “I could never separate the personal from the political, nor do I have the luxury of pretending I can.”
  • In June, censors in China blocked The Intercept and other news sites. Now The Intercept is launching an app for Android and Windows that will allow readers in China to bypass the country’s “Great Firewall.”
  • And Twitter blocked an account linked to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, after it posted violent threats against… Mitch McConnell. Vice’s David Uberti has more.

ICYMI: Right-wing publications launder an anti-journalist smear campaign

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.