Can Media Thrive?
Winners in another layoff winter and the lessons of the Times (and BuzzFeed)
The contraction of the news industry continues. Newspapers are bleeding out. Gannett, the conglomerate that owns USA Today, The Indianapolis Star and The Detroit Free Press, announced it would shed 6% of its U.S. media division. The Washington Post slashed its Sunday magazine and said it would lay off employees next year. Even NPR and CNN are contracting, amid a tougher business environment and the retrenchment of advertising dollars.
For the newspapers, it’s an old story. The twentieth century print advertising model, which promised a degree of stability that will probably never be known again, has greatly eroded. For smaller and mid-sized newspapers, this has been especially devastating, as readers reject the hollowed-out versions of what these papers used to be, feeding further cuts. The crisis of democracy is not the Trump Republicans finding their way back into power: it’s cities like Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, Baltimore, Denver, and New Orleans no longer having robust, functioning daily newspapers. One problem is that many of the papers in these cities are controlled by conglomerates like Gannett or Alden Capital, the vulture hedge fund. Cost-cutting is a constant and investments into making any of the newspapers a better product—the kind of essential service a person would want to pay for—rarely happen. The pivot to paywalls came late and the web offerings tend to be subpar. Without dramatic intervention—bailouts from the federal government or benevolent billionaires—many of these news organizations will continue to suffer.
The Washington Post, though, was supposed to be the outlier. Like The New York Times, it was a 2010s standout that saw a digital subscription boom during the Trump years. Jeff Bezos, one of the very richest men in the world, owns the paper, theoretically offering an infinite well of financial support. What’s become clear, at least, is that Bezos wants to own a newspaper, not subsidize it; he is no Rupert Murdoch, who helps keep the New York Post alive and even expanding.