Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Problem With Media
Groupthink and economic precarity go together
Though portrayed as an existential threat to the free press for all four years of his exhausting and excruciating presidency, Donald Trump was nothing of the sort. This was obvious to anyone who paid attention to the finances of the industry and the level of interest from mass audiences from 2016 through 2020. Trump might have turned the media into a hate object and sowed further distrust—trust in the media has been rather low for decades now—but he was not going to destroy a tradition that now dates back more than 200 years. He was too weak a tyrant to do that, and too obsessed with seeing his name in the paper, for good and ill.
The biggest problem for newspapers, of course, is economic precarity. This has been the threat since the dawn of the twenty-first century. The story may seem stale by now but is worth repeating. For just about the entire twentieth century, newspapers had a certain monopoly on everyday life. If you wanted to find out the score of last night’s Yankee game, see whether it might rain on Wednesday, or determine if you could make the next movie showing, you bought a newspaper.
In 1942 or 1977 or 1996, you did not have to be an avid reader or have any commitment to the First Amendment to be a subscriber to a local newspaper. There was news in there, important news, but you probably weren’t buying the Daily News or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or the Buffalo News to read prize-winning investigations into municipal malfeasance. That was nice, and perhaps you skimmed it, but you were really interested because you needed this newspaper. Before the existence of computer screens and hand-held devices that could conjure infinite amounts of information in less than five seconds, how else were you supposed to start your day and go out into the world? There’s a reason old photos show just about every human being on Earth reading about the John F. Kennedy assassination. How else were you supposed to get any gritty details?
The rise of television did not threaten the newspaper. When I teach journalism classes, some students usually assume the broadcast television era was the beginning of the end of newspapers. It wasn’t. Before the internet, conglomeration was a slow killer: predatory corporations buying up newspapers and merging them, so localities in the latter half of the twentieth century begin to lose out on the healthy newspaper rivalries that lead to more robust coverage of government and society. Television couldn’t damage the newspaper much because the medium was so different. There was, and remains, a value to seeing live video, but a TV news broadcast runs about twenty minutes in total, when commercials are not factored in. There is a degree of detail that will always go missing. And television, before the twenty-first century, was not easily recorded. If you weren’t at home for the six o’clock news or fell asleep before broadcasts later at night, you were out of luck. The newspaper, which could print multiple times in a day—there was once such things as morning and evening newspapers—was more adept at catching you up. Thick with information, it offered a much greater bang for your buck, all things considered, than the nightly news. CNN was a revolution, introducing the idea of 24/7 television news. The position of the traditional newspaper was not threatened all that much, though.
Newspapers still had advertisers. If you were an auto dealership, a cosmetics company, or a landlord publicizing new rentals, you weren’t going to merely run TV ads. Television was, and remains, very expensive. It is not conducive to a good deal of advertising, especially those for smaller-scale, local services. The backbone of the newspaper, because of this, was the classifieds section. The Village Voice, which shut down a few years ago and came back recently, was an alternative weekly juggernaut in its heyday not because it featured many of the best and most fascinating writers in America, though that definitely helped. It survived and thrived because most New Yorkers weren’t going to rent apartments without it. For decades, people would line up outside newsstands to grab the Voice so they could get the jump on a cheap place to live. Landlords would always pay to advertise their apartments there. The newspaper, in turn, could pay its writers and reporters.
This world is gone now. Was it a better one? For newspapers, yes. For most people, not always. Why page through a newspaper to find an apartment when Zillow or StreetEasy are right there? Why struggle to find out the weather or the scores of the game when an app can tell you this in an eye-blink? I’ve always thought it was foolhardy to blame Craig Newmark of Craigslist for destroying the news. Once the internet arrived, the twentieth century business model was ruined. If Newmark hadn’t figured out that advertising services online was more efficient than doing it in a newspaper, someone else would have. Newspapers were, of course, incredibly slow to adapt to the new reality, spending much of the 2000s giving away prized reporting for free that, for a long time, everyone understood cost something. You’d steal a newspaper to read the news gratis from a bodega as soon as you would steal a carton of milk or a bottle of Aspirin; if you were a petty thief, no big deal, but 99 percent of the population was going to fork over that 50 cents. Newspaper prices, it must be remembered, were always artificially low because the real money was in advertising. Before the internet, before metrics, newspapers had a delicious monopoly on all of that. If the ad sales guy at the newspaper said it cost $10,000 to run a half-page ad of a new sneaker, who was Nike or Adidas to argue? That’s what it cost. The only other options were radio and television. Both came with their own expenses and limitations.
The internet allowed advertisers to go elsewhere. This was inevitable. In 2007, there was no reason for a corporation or smaller business to spend cash on advertising in a newspaper like they would have in 1997 or 1987. The people simply weren’t there. Attention was atomized; the era of mass consumption was over. People did not need the Post or the News on their doorstep anymore. They could peruse the websites for free. Social media finished the job, allowing news to be consumed in real-time, without the intermediary of an expensive organization. Unlike books, which have survived the digital disruption because there is something special and intrinsic about possessing a physical object when consuming hundreds of pages of text, the medium of the newspaper never, in retrospect, mattered much to most people. News is news. It doesn’t make much difference if a Covid update or the latest from Afghanistan shows up in a Twitter thread, a link to a Times piece, or a physical paper. In that scenario, the physical paper clearly comes in last: it’s more unwieldy, it can be dirty, and can’t automatically update when the news changes.
Google and Facebook dealt the deathblow. The online advertising market was relatively weak to begin with, diffuse, too rife with competition. Advertisers had thousands of websites to choose from that weren’t newspaper websites. This naturally drove down the price of a banner ad. The 2000s hope that online advertising would offer a way forward died with the advent of Facebook and the world-historical dominance of Google. Online advertising could now go there, and only there. If you run a company and need to get the word out, there is no reason to go elsewhere. Google and Facebook have your personal data and can target you with precision. Facebook crushed local news in another way; it became the de facto newspaper, the new town square. This, as we know, has been poisonous for democracy, if a bit overstated—fevered liberal pundits want to ascribe Facebook black magic to Trump’s popularity, when the explanations are far more banal—and the real damage, beyond Trump or QAnon, is the dearth of local news organizations in most towns and smaller cities across America.
This is the tragedy. The local news die-off is real and lasting. Whole regions of the country now lack reliable news. The suffering is not always obvious because it is more about absence than outright destruction. Today’s 28-year-old living in an exurb doesn’t understand how much coverage of a town meeting, a county executive’s office, or a public school they would’ve read 20 or 30 years ago. They merely see nothing and learn to live with it. Many of the remaining small newspapers hardly function at all; they are living ghosts printing wire copy. As of now, they have no way forward. It can be argued the decline of local news has fed the nationalization of our politics and its toxic negative partisanship. Tip O’Neill would be wrong today—all politics is national. Many Americans get their news from cable TV (Fox for Red America, MSNBC or CNN for blue) or hyper-partisan websites and behave accordingly. It is not really their fault. These are the options available to them. I do believe the ultimate salvation for local news, beyond a few well-intentioned nonprofits and the occasionally fairy godmother who decides it’s worth losing millions to run a newspaper, will lie in generous federal subsidies on a mass scale. This idea is becoming more popular but isn’t yet close to reality.
One consequence of the local news decline is the concentration of media in a select few places. New York and Washington D.C. are now where most young journalists live. The New York-D.C. nexus always mattered and set the agenda for the national news through organs like the New York Times and Time Magazine, but there was a strong regional counterweight to whatever they did. For much of the twentieth century, locals in Worcester, Dayton, or Birmingham, probably read a physical copy of the Times only rarely. They read their local paper, watched their local TV station, and listened to their local radio. In big cities far away from New York and Washington, the daily newspapers there mattered more. If you lived in Seattle or Detroit, the Seattle Times or the Free Press were your primary sources of information, how you processed both local and national affairs.
This was healthy for a republic. It permitted, at the minimum, a diversity of viewpoints: racially, ethnically, regionally, and ideologically. Journalists themselves, laboring in a less competitive and more stable marketplace, did not need to be college-educated or come with familial connections to launch careers, make livings, and retire with some comfort. A job at a regional paper could be enough. Or, eventually, it could give way to a better-paying, more prestigious gig at the New York Times or Washington Post. Even if these newspapers serviced the more affluent big city folk, they might be staffed with veterans of smaller newspapers elsewhere. These veterans may have climbed the ladder from a regional or ethnic paper. They may not have went to college at all, apprenticing as a copy boy or girl at a daily somewhere.
Now the Times is a cultural hegemon and the Post, Bezos-owned, is persisting nicely. The digital insurgents of the 2010s failed to displace them. Buzzfeed, Mic, Vice, and all the rest hoped VC capital and pageviews would be enough, along with vague, ill-considered initiatives like the pivot to video, to rival legacy media. They never were. Some, like Vox, will have a future, thanks to the explanatory journalism they pioneered and the legacy outlet they were able to gobble up, New York Magazine. Buzzfeed’s future is cloudier. The digital start-ups offered competition but did not solve the problem of diminishing ideological and regional counterweights to the Times and cable TV. They were all mostly clustered in New York or D.C., hiring young graduates from upper tier colleges who came, largely, from comfortable middle or upper-class families. Ideological conformity was common. Many, unlike the newspapers of yore, focused first on content aggregation, hunting clicks in the vain hope advertisers would follow.
If we are exhuming any era of the twentieth century, we must reckon with racial and sexual discrimination. The economic golden age of newspapers was not halcyon. Few women, until the latter half of the century, were allowed to enter newsrooms with regularity. Black newspapers could thrive, but they existed because the mainstream dailies were so hostile to nonwhite employees. Newsrooms today are doing their best to right these historical wrongs. That is vital.
But there is an underlying irony to the current reckoning around race and the new rush to instill anti-racist teachings in newsrooms. Today’s newspapers are more likely than at any point in recent history to be staffed with the children of elites. Since there is so much precarity in the news business—job prospects are uncertain and the pay is low—often only those who can afford to gut it out in the industry are those who have family money to fall back on. An American from a working-class background who manages to graduate college, taking on significant student loans to do so, may not be able to accept an unpaid or poorly paid internship for a summer and then decide, like I did in 2011, to make $24,000 a year writing for a newspaper. I was able to live at home and drive my mother’s car. Many are not so privileged. Without family support or strong industry connections, how long can a child of the working-class or poor remain a newspaper reporter? The full-time salaries today, unless you find work at the Times or the Wall Street Journal, are rather low and likely to evaporate when another round of layoffs hit. To be perfectly frank with you, I’ve avoided a staff job since 2016 for that reason. Today, I am incredibly fortunate to earn, through my writings and teaching career and this Substack, a comfortable wage. I don’t miss the newsroom much. If I can continue to pay my rent and fork away cash for savings like I am now, it will be hard for me to go back.
A recent college graduate from a working-class household cannot play the news industry waiting game. They cannot make a sub-minimum wage for an internship, coasting on the prestige, and pray for better days tomorrow. They cannot hop aboard the digital news carousel, earning a wage that is pathetic when workloads are factored in, only to be tossed again on the unemployment line when the layoffs hit. They will be rational and choose other careers. In turn, their perspectives will never penetrate newsrooms.
When diversity trainers rush into newsrooms to re-educate employees on anti-racist practices, whose minds are they exactly shaping? If a newsroom is a cluster of graduates from elite colleges who all hold similar political views, what’s the real purpose? These efforts might amount to the misguided reckoning at expensive private schools across America, where millionaire parents and administrators demand alienating new education practices in a bid to atone for discrimination, when it might be better to donate the whole endowment to charity or send their kids to public schools. The Times recently announced it would undertake its own diversity initiative, increasing the number of Black and Latino employees in leadership roles, an admirable idea. But it is often these academic approaches to diversity that elide the reality of race and class in America. Is the Times going to reach into community colleges and NYCHA developments to find their next class of reporters? Will editors go to Brownsville, Brightmoor, or Crenshaw to recruit them? Or will the newspaper simply seek out more graduates of prestige private and public schools, the Yales and U.C. Berkeleys? None of these initiatives will rectify the fundamental issue: the upheaval in the news business weeds out those who can’t afford to endure it. The children of privilege remain.
When the news industry becomes populated by highly-educated people who live in the affluent neighborhoods of two cities, the realities of America are shunted out. Groupthink dominates. The media world was always clubby, particularly in the big cities, and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker will remind you how shoddy midcentury reporters could be. But since that vanished world was bigger, dispersed among many towns and cities, the insularity could only matter so much. A reporter in San Diego was not commenting on the filtered sunset photo of a reporter in Brooklyn. Rituals naturally formed and a consensus could be aggressively managed and manufactured—read Noam Chomsky for that—but there were limitations to such endeavors in a world where there really were many more working reporters throughout America. Thirty thousand jobs are gone just since 2008. In this new era, there is the poisonous brew of precarity and Twitter, where journalists meet daily to network, suck up, and joust with shared enemies. Twitter doesn’t matter like Facebook matters, but it can function, at times, like an assignment editor, with reporters and editors alike sifting through feeds for ideas. Twitter controversies become reported controversies. Meta-narratives evolve into hard narratives.
Remember, the problem with journalism is the ongoing economic instability, not blue checks with melding opinions. The two, though, can bleed into one another, as reporters fret over offending colleagues or future editors by conveying wrongthink. There is little incentive to engage in media criticism or self-interrogate. Reporters, in this era, are less likely to step out of line, lest they be labeled “contrarians” and begin to lose their friends, who are often journalists. One piece of advice I’ll give to those younger than me is to find friends who aren’t journalists. Cultivate relationships with people who don’t work in the industry. And don’t go into journalism to make friends. Journalists will not admit it publicly but this dynamic hampers reporting and free inquiry. It suppresses dissent. Young journalists, hustling online, will seek to express opinions that are quickly validated by peers. No one wants to be shamed, mocked, regarded as another Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald won a Pulitzer and is quite wealthy now, but he is, for many left-leaning reporters, as worthy of disdain as Trump himself. An opinion I’ll save for this essay, and not share sans context on Twitter—I’d rather not suffer a dreaded ratio, though if one comes, c’est la vie—is that it’s kind of notable 47 percent of the American electorate voted for Trump’s re-election, but there are, very likely, less than 7 percent of journalists at mainstream news organizations who cast votes for Trump. News organizations could hit their diversity goals by hiring some of the many Latinos who voted for Trump last year. Something tells me they won’t go in that direction.
When criticized, journalists will usually close ranks, particularly online. Other industries do this too, like the police, but other industries don’t exist to ask challenging questions of the public. The star legal scholars, medical professionals, and professional athletes do not exist beyond reproach, either by those in the field or those beyond it. There are vigorous debates about how great Derek Jeter played the position of shortstop. Legal minds like Antonin Scalia can be regarded, by fellow lawyers, as groundbreaking geniuses or mostly incoherent. Journalists, at least among journalists, are held in a different regard altogether. Breathless praise is the usual currency. Anything less draws censure.
To this day, the New York media class will not reckon with the role they played in burnishing Andrew Cuomo’s extraordinary popularity during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. They will never admit they created a sense of false symmetry between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the governor’s near-sociopathic bullying portrayed as a “feud” among equals. There will be no discussion among themselves, public or private, over what exactly happened. They will only hurry forward, into the next news cycle, hoping no one noticed their failure.
On a national level, there is still little sense of how reporters will account, along with public health officials, for spreading misinformation about the pandemic. Why were we told, for weeks in February and March of 2020, masks were useless or outright harmful? Why were we told going to a beach was murder? Why were we told international travel bans at the beginning of the pandemic were wrong? Why did so many media outlets rush to cover and shame a SoulCycle instructor who received a vaccine? Why did the future vice president of the United States face no blame for promoting vaccine hesitancy when she said, if Trump won again, she may not take a dose at all? Why was the argument that coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China dismissed as a fringe conspiracy theory for many months, even when evidence, compiled by scientists, pointed to the possibility this might have happened?
Online groupthink did not, alone, create these challenges. The pre-social media age was rife with failure, including the faulty reporting that justified the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Reporters themselves, fast to criticize and render judgment, are rarely so exacting with their own. What makes this era different is the existence of a public square, Twitter, that can draw together journalists who might never otherwise have crossed paths. There is much to be recommended about this. I personally enjoy many of my interactions on the site and learn from very smart people. Sources, certainly, circulate in the feed and Twitter can make it easier for the public to reach an individual reporter. The citadel model—of the reporter existing at a remove, armored behind a masthead, forged with the belief that gray neutrality is the only way forward—has been thankfully left behind. What should replace it is a culture that accepts criticism and constantly questions whether it is doing all it can to serve the public. This profession should draw upon America’s diversity in a way that is not superficial or insulting, that doesn’t merely seek to meet quotas by finding fresh Ivy League graduates to replace the old ones. This profession should welcome dissent, embrace the heterodox, and break free from the constraints of the bubble.
The dirty truth of journalism is that it’s not that hard to do. It’s not the law, it’s not medicine, it’s not engineering, it’s not PhD-level textual analysis. It’s not grinding manual labor. It’s not working retail, fast food, waitressing, or engaging in any low-wage, high-stress front-line occupation. Any reasonably smart person can be trained to ask questions and master the inverted pyramid. Journalists imagine themselves as rarefied creatures; they are not, and many people can be taught to do what they do. For the few news organizations that still possess money and clout, it should be their stated goal to get as many of the regular people, the hoi polloi, the working-classes and under-classes, into journalism. They should come with their uncomfortable ideas and unlikely life experiences and make reporting what it deserves to be.