Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
There Is Only One Real Way to Save the News
News organizations are running out of options.
In the fall of 2011, after an unpaid internship at the L Magazine and a stint substitute teaching, I became a professional journalist. Since then, I have worked for at least three publications that effectively no longer exist. The first was my very first full-time reporting job, at the Queens Tribune. A venerable, and occasionally controversial, local newspaper that lasted nearly 40 years, the Tribune went outside of business at the end of 2018. After the Tribune, I was a staff reporter at the New York Observer from 2013 through April of 2016. Once owned by Jared Kushner, the New York Observer shuttered its print edition in late 2016, laid off much of its staff, and now functions as a skeletal website just called Observer. Finally, from 2016 through 2018, I was a regular contributor to the Village Voice, which remains one of my favorite journalism gigs. The Voice, which in every way was my platonic ideal of a newspaper, ended its print edition in 2017 and shut down in 2018. And the L Magazine, that Brooklyn music and arts magazine I interned for in 2011? That went out of business too, in 2015.
As a millennial journalist who labored in the 2010s, attempting to build a career and make a name for myself, my story is not unique. Ultimately, despite the carnage I witnessed, I am one of the lucky ones. At 30, I’ve stayed in the business and managed to pay the rent doing what I love. Many of my friends and former colleagues, rightfully so, have left news altogether. At no point in my awareness was journalism not a precarious and often horrid business. I was in college during the 2008 crash when many newspapers were shuttering. In the early 2010s, there was the sugar high of the digital start-ups, which believed inflated pageviews and Silicon Valley-style investing would be enough to save news. But a website with professionalized staff cannot just sustain itself on pageviews or the greed of investors who will demand the sort of profitability from news organizations that they never would from Uber. We long ago learned digital advertising is no salve for news organizations, since Facebook and Google devour most of the online revenue. What’s left is virtually worthless, compared to what newspapers used to demand for print advertisements.
All of these factors were obliterating newspapers and online-only news organizations before the pandemic hit. News was dying in America when the economy, otherwise, was quite good. Now COVID-19 is accelerating the demise. There are many awful outcomes of this dismal news landscape. Small town and midsized newspapers are disappearing altogether, leaving entire regions without any source of reliable news, as Margaret Sullivan writes in her new book, Ghosting the News. This is the real crisis of democracy; Donald Trump screaming “fake news” is more symptom than cause, since so few people have access to actual, well-reported news in their hometowns. Those news outlets that remain amount to little more than “ghost newspapers,” printing AP wire copy, press releases, and a very small amount of original journalism. Beyond major metropolitan areas, these newspapers abound. Without professional news organizations serving them, most people resort to Facebook, where hearsay and conspiracy theories proliferate. I do believe Trump’s ascension required, in part, the decimation of local news.
One dreadful result of the decline of local and regional newspapers has been the loss of a pipeline for journalists from working class and low income backgrounds. I was reminded of this last week when the New York Times Guild, the union representing Times journalists, released a tweet thread of their recommendations to management for improving working conditions for journalists of color. Some of the recommendations were mocked online, including a demand for “sensitivity” reads that sounded, to some, like a call for censorship. What was just as notable to me was the Guild’s request that the Times set a goal of having demographics reflective of the make-up of New York City: “24% Black and over 50% people of color.” On one hand, more diversity is an admirable goal, particularly in an overwhelmingly white news industry. But nowhere in the thread did the Guild call for actually doing the kind of recruitment that could increase the Times’ diversity in all ways that matter. There was no demand from the Guild for the Times to start hiring more journalists who graduate from community colleges, lower-ranked state universities, or only hold high school diplomas, like a large majority of Americans. There is something ironic about the Times Guild invoking New York City as their template, when the Times does comparatively little local reporting anymore, prioritizing national coverage, particularly an unhealthy devotion to horse race politics. It’s also strange to cite New York City’s Black population but not its sizable Latino or Asian-American populations, let alone booming subsets like the South Asian and Hasidic Jewish communities. There are, of course, a not-insignificant minority of New Yorkers who hold political views the Times Guild would find repugnant. One of the city’s five counties voted, overwhelmingly, for Trump after all. The Guild isn’t beating the drum for more pro-life, South Shore Catholics to fill their newsroom, though that’s another demographic in short supply.
Will the Times, at least, commit to hiring graduates of CUNY senior and community colleges? Will Times recruiters drive out to Kingsborough, LaGuardia, and Hostos? Will they roam Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, Jamaica Avenue in Queens, or Southern Boulevard in the Bronx? Will they seek journalists from public housing in East New York and Sheepshead Bay? What about apartments in downtown Flushing or Richmond Hill? I can ask these questions all day and you can imagine how they would be answered. The Times, these days, is more powerful than ever because it is a gleaming citadel amid cataclysm, one of the few successful news organizations in existence. Many of their journalists, if not most, are the graduates of elite universities, Ivy League or equivalent. There is no serious diversity of viewpoints because most reporters and columnists have come through the upper crust of educational institutions in America. This explains the increasing ideological conformity at the Times and why a tweet thread parroting otherwise very liberal talking points couldn’t think to invoke class, which is the true underpinning of the politics they seek. Hiring for class would lead to the sort of outcomes the Times Guild desires, at least in New York City, because the vast working class is, these days, nonwhite. Beyond the boundaries of New York, though, many whites belong to the bottom rungs.
In the 20th century, journalism was not such an elite profession. This was because it offered stability to ambitious people with relatively little education. A high school graduate could become a copy boy or girl, start from the bottom, and have a job at a regional newspaper or even a large daily. Two of the most celebrated newspaper columnists and editors in New York City history, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, never graduated college. Today, the only people who can risk trying to become journalists are those with significant support behind them already. The working poor cannot take unpaid internships. They lack the prestige degrees to war with the educated elite for one of the very few paid positions left. I came from the comfortable middle; I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with two parents who worked in the federal government and allowed me, in my youth, to take risks and pursue my dreams. I did not have to be a household breadwinner. For many others, the reality is very different. We are losing a generation of great journalists before they even attempt to join the profession. We are all worse off for it.
What to do? As far as I can see, there are three ways out of this decline. One is siphoning off advertising revenue from Google and Facebook. This is already being attempted in Australia. For some news organizations, particularly larger newspapers, this could be a lifeline. Google and Facebook don’t produce anything, including news. They are platforms in which we feed our thoughts, dreams, secrets, and gossip pro bono. They pay nothing to aggregate news and fatten their absurd bottom lines while offering nothing, except mostly useless pageviews, in return. If the next Democratic president, with an aggressive Congress, wants to tackle Big Tech to try to save the news, this would be a welcome development. Will it be enough? If the goal is to return the news industry to even its early 2000s level of strength, I don’t think so. Between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue collapsed from about $60 billion to $20 billion, wiping out gains of the previous half century. It’s a loss that’s hard to fathom.
For smart, ambitious prestige news organizations, there is a clear way out: charge people for content. The subscription model, finally, seems to be paying dividends, as Americans slowly understand they can’t keep getting strong, original writing and reporting for free. One of the worst mistakes the news media ever made was not taking the internet seriously in the 2000s, throwing all of their articles up on substandard websites without asking readers to pay for them. It created an unrealistic and ultimately destructive expectation. It’s why I ask you to subscribe to my newsletter. Labor costs money. More newspapers are instituting paywalls and, for some, they’ve been successful. The Times and the Washington Post, with their deep reservoir of reporting and universal name recognition, can ask their enormous readership to pay for digital subscriptions. The digital-first strategy of the Times, which began in earnest with the launch of their controversial paywall in 2011, has been a real and lasting success. A decade ago, the Times was a newspaper on the brink. Now it is ascendant. This was not an accident.
Newer outlets with well-regarded staff are pursuing the subscription model. The Athletic hired many sportswriters, instituted a hard paywall, and asked its readership to pay for high quality content. They largely have and, along with venture capital funding, the Athletic was able to avert layoffs until the pandemic hit. It’s unclear why the layoffs were necessary when the website has close to a million subscribers. Though a large number pay less than $60 a year, if 800,000 subscribe at just $30 a year, that still amounts to $24 million annually in revenue. My assumption is the venture capitalists heavily involved in the Athletic were unsatisfied with the revenue returns—profitability, on its own, is never enough—and instituted cuts. This represents the danger of having investors in the first place. That’s why it’s heartening to see the former Deadspin writers, who quit after another venture capitalist ruined the iconic sports website, band together to launch a new venture, Defector Media, that will rely on monthly and annual subscriptions to survive. Given the large followings of the ex-Deadspin writers and the dedicated fan base the old blog had built up over a decade, fundraising should be significant. I don’t doubt Defector will find a way to survive, especially if it’s free from the unrealistic demands of predatory investors.
Most newspapers, however, can’t rely on subscriptions to thrive, let alone survive. They lack brand names, huge followings, or readerships that can afford to pay what’s needed to keep the news organization afloat. Small town and regional newspapers survived in the pre-internet era because readers were forced to pay for them to access news and local advertisers had nowhere else to go. Subscriptions were never a driving force of their bottom line; advertisers were. It’s unreasonable to expect a dying newspaper in upstate New York to mimic the digital-first strategy of the Times. An attempt can be made, but it will amount to treading water before the next tidal wave comes.
Surprisingly few journalists, columnists, and media analysts want to accept the only viable option for returning the news industry to its pre-apocalypse strength: public funding. For any renaissance to occur, the federal government must get involved. Having written about this topic fairly extensively and lived through the upheaval myself, I’ve become convinced this is the only way forward that will protect American democracy and guarantee people everywhere have access to professional and reliable news. During the Great Depression, the Federal Arts Project was a lifeline for out-of-work artists and writers. A more permanent federal effort will be required to bail out the failing newspapers and help revive those that disappeared altogether. For journalists, this idea is taboo because they fret federal funding will compromise their independence. At first glance, this argument is understandable—the Trump administration, or some regime even worse, could theoretically control the purse strings of thousands of news organizations. But journalists accepted, for more than a century, the corrupt bargain of advertising dollars funding news, even when it became clear advertisers, in certain cases, could exert sway over what got covered and what didn’t. In practice, federal funding works. NPR and PBS, both federally-funded, are two of the most trusted news outlets in America and have never turned into the propaganda organ of any particular president. Overseas, especially in Europe, public support for the media is far more common: the French will get a tax credit for taking out a subscription to any public affairs newspaper or magazine, on top of subsidies already doled out to media organizations. In Sweden, since 1971, an administrative governmental body has offered subsidies based on a paper’s revenue and circulation—to every newspaper except the dominant paper in a given media market.
A federal fund in the United States, ideally, would function as a universal basic income for news. Any existing newspaper would be able to access an annual subsidy to keep their news operation afloat or even expand it. Money would also be available for new startups that could apply for it, in the same way any organization or nonprofit already applies for public grants. The public fund should prioritize, like Sweden, non-dominant news organizations, though money should ultimately be available to almost anyone. The subsidy should guarantee that no news organization ever goes out of business for lack of revenue. PEN America’s 2019 report on the death of local news suggests that if the United States subsidized the news media at the same level that other democracies subsidize their public broadcasting sectors, this would amount to an additional $23.4 billion in funding per year, representing less than 0.05 percent of the $4.75 trillion federal budget for 2020. This would be enough to replace a significant amount of the newspaper revenue lost since 2005. The federal funding could be administered by a new entity or even an existing one, like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Progressives in Congress like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be advocating for this relatively modest proposal, along with far more expensive expansions of the social safety net. If federal funding can be generous enough to return the news industry to the relative health it enjoyed at the turn of the millennium, it should be done. In a time of economic crisis, such a program would both bolster democracy and offer employment for thousands of out of work media employees across America, especially those who don’t live in wealthy coastal cities. New York media, my home, would benefit from a mass federal subsidy, but so would newspapers in Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, and everywhere else. It’s neither a naïve nor lofty aim, not when other nations do it already and the cost itself—$25 or even $30 billion a year—represents such a small slice of the federal budget. For those who would scoff at a news subsidy and decry bailouts for media employees and not other American workers, the socialist in me would agree: it’s why I am supportive of a federal jobs guarantee. But absent such a policy, which is worthy but incredibly far-reaching, a federal subsidy for news should come first. Before aggressive fundraising and handouts from tech giants, this must be done.