A Los Angeles Massacre
Reflections on the Times layoffs and the macroculture
Yesterday was another miserable day for a storied media institution. The Los Angeles Times, unlike Sports Illustrated, will continue to employ a bevy of well-regarded journalists, but the newsroom has been radically cut down. About 115 people, a quarter of the newsroom, were laid off, including reporters, editors, and columnists. The layoffs were not surprising. The Times’s executive editor had already resigned and members of the union staged a walkout several days earlier. The Times’s billionaire owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, said the cuts were necessary because the newspaper could no longer lose $30 to $40 million a year. When he bought the Times in 2018, he was hailed as a potential savior, and initially invested large amounts of money to grow the newspaper. Like Jeff Bezos, who pumped heaps of cash into the Washington Post before, in recent weeks, ordering significant cuts, Soon-Shiong decided that he couldn’t stomach losing more money.
Neither Bezos nor Soon-Shiong are philanthropists. If they hoped to buy influence and goodwill by controlling venerable newspapers, they ultimately wanted to turn a profit. They haven’t been able to drive enough digital subscribers to their newspapers to make up for the collapsing print ad market and, in the case of the Post, a diminished interest in national politics. In the coming months, both men will have to figure out whether they want to become media philanthropists— treating the newspapers as worthwhile but expensive hobbies, like buying season tickets to see Shohei Ohtani’s Dodgers—or sell off the properties for less than what they paid for them. The newspaper business is extraordinarily difficult and there’s a strong argument to be made that public subsidies will be required to keep local media from vanishing entirely. Most newspapers cannot be the New York Times. Smaller outlets and specialty publications can survive the new age, but general interest newspapers that write about unprofitable topics cannot be expected, in most cases, to survive as successful for-profit businesses. I can’t speak to the particular failures of the Los Angeles Times because I don’t live in Los Angeles and don’t read its coverage regularly. It’s plausible the Times, under Soon-Shiong, has failed to make a good argument for itself in the city of Los Angeles, which has a wealthy enough tax base to fund a brand-name publication.
What I can ascertain is the state of the mainstream media, that frail heart of the macroculture, and the psychology of journalists under duress. If you still spend time on Twitter/X, you will find a rather dispiriting ritual that has grown all-too-common in the last few years: full-time reporters and editors announcing they are laid off. These posts, rightfully, attract a great amount of sympathy, and hundreds of people, usually in media or media-adjacent industries, offer praise for their work and promises to help however they can. There is a communal aspect that can be, if you’re in the midst of it, gratifying, even as your job prospects dim. It’s also an experience not open to most professions. A laid off home health aide or construction worker can’t take to social media and bask in praise of a job well-done. They can’t rack up hundreds of likes as their colleagues exhort future supervisors to hire them as soon as possible.
I’ve been unemployed. I know how aimless you can feel, how fearful you can be for the future. I don’t want to diminish what any laid off journalist is going through. But I do think what is lost, in situations like these, is that the tragedy is not the disappearance of stable employment in the journalism industry. The actual tragedy is what cutbacks like these do to local communities. It’s the loss of human beings and institutions who can convey reliable information to the public and hold political and business elites accountable. Young and mid-career journalists are very employable. They are not coal miners deprived of a coal mine, millhands bereft of a town textile mill. They are, in almost every case, college-educated workers with skillsets that are in demand elsewhere. A laid off journalist can work in public relations, consulting, politics, or the corporate sector. They can pivot, with certification, to becoming public school or private school teachers. There is, without question, a white collar world that is wide open to them. Their cultural capital is secure.
The rejoinder to this is obvious enough: many of them love journalism and don’t want to do anything else. I understand that fully. I wanted to write for a living and avoid any job that kept me in an office. I started my career as a public school teacher, not expecting to ever work as a journalist, and left a regular gig as a substitute—this was 2011, when the teacher job market was dreadful—for a full-time position at a local newspaper. If I was laid off from the Los Angeles Times, I would keep job-hunting in the journalism industry. But my feelings are similar to those lamenting the probable demise of Pitchfork. It’s awful we’ve lost so much music criticism. What is still worse, though, is how musicians are treated, how the internet has almost entirely eroded their livelihoods. There is no meaningful way to make money selling music or collecting streaming royalties unless you’re already famous. Top-flight indie acts recognized this more than a decade ago. A frontman of one of the most celebrated rock bands of the late 2000s is now a therapist. He enjoys his new work and his new life. What took a toll, however, was the hustle of touring, and the realization that even rising to the top of the heap could only do so much to guarantee economic security.
My hope, at the minimum, is that those in the mainstream—I remain a card-carrying member—abandon their sneering attitude toward microcultural outlets like Substack and other segments of the new media who are experiencing rapid growth. It’s time for the institutions who are failing to learn from those who are succeeding. Why did the Washington Post lose half its traffic since 2020 while Substack newsletters, as a whole, surpassed 30 million subscribers? Why is YouTube still booming? Why have some local independent publishers and nonprofits found stability? As more journalists are forced out of the large media outlets that keep bleeding cash, they will, if they want to keep doing this, have to get far more creative and ambitious. There is an audience out there. You just have to offer them something they haven’t digested elsewhere, a hundred times over. Easier said than done, but not as hard as it seems.
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