The sad decline of journalism
Wednesday was a bad day for journalism, which means Wednesday was a bad day for America.
In the early afternoon, Pacific Standard, a much-lauded online magazine that focuses on social issues, announced that its foundation funding had run out and that the outlet is shutting down. Journalists across the country were digesting that news when a second report arrived that Governing magazine, which reported on trends in state and local government for 32 years, will cease publication this fall.
"Governing has proven to be unsustainable as a business in today's media environment," the magazine's publisher and editors wrote in a letter to readers.
All of this happened on the heels of this week's merger between GateHouse and Gannett to form what will be the largest media company in America: 260 daily papers and more than 300 weeklies across the country. The merger was celebrated by its participants as a win for journalism, but the new company must also find a way to cut $300 million a year from its operating costs — and GateHouse, the senior partner in the merger, already has a widespread reputation in the news industry for laying off reporters to make its profit margins.
Wednesday was bad. The future is foreboding. It's possible that the media itself is proving to be unsustainable in this media environment. Then again, I'm a journalist — of course I'm worried. Why should you, the reader, care?
It helps to understand that much of what we call "the media" is actually "the elite media" — newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with cable outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. Those outlets have largely withstood the headwinds of the last 20 years — the decline of print in favor of digital newsreading, along with massive declines in ad revenue — to survive with hopes for the future.
Your local newspaper is probably a very different creature.
The people who report your local news are probably good at what they do, but they're hardly elite. It is more likely they are your neighbor — sending their kids to local schools, buying groceries in the same stores you do, and living day-to-day in the same conditions about which they report. They aren't going to cocktail parties in Manhattan or book signings in Georgetown. They are, for the most part, working stiffs — more likely than most Americans to have graduated from college, yes, but without the same financial compensation as other college grads. They do the work they do, by and large, for the sense of mission that comes with it.
The newspapers they work for do so much to help tie American communities together. They report birth announcements and obituaries, they cover local high school sports and county fairs. When big emergencies happen — as in El Paso and Dayton this week — their reporters are first on the scene. When the national attention moves on, they're the ones who stay behind to cover the ongoing process of healing.
What's more, they do the important — if often unglamorous — work of keeping democracy accountable and functioning. They save you money. One notable study last year found that when local newspapers close, the costs of bonds — how much local governments spend to borrow money for big projects — can rise as much as 11 basis points. Journalism matters. Magazines like Governing aren't local, but they are an important part of the ecosystem, providing training to reporters who go on to work throughout the industry. And they're a source of good ideas to local reporters; I was a subscriber years ago, when I covered the City Hall beat in my hometown.
In recent years, journalists have increasingly done this work under duress. Many have gone without raises for years at a time, and those are the ones who have managed to hang onto their jobs. The number of newsroom jobs fell 25 percent between 2008 and 2018.
This may come as a surprise. Most Americans think their local news outlets are doing well financially, but they probably aren't. Outside of the very biggest national newspapers, there is trouble. The Los Angeles Times is struggling to sell enough digital subscriptions to pay for its news staff. The Philadelphia Inquirer told employees this summer it has five years to adapt to a new business model — but nobody is really sure what that model is yet. The rest of the industry may not have much longer.
"I think most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire," New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said earlier this year.
Billionaires are in short supply in many American communities. So if there is a solution to this crisis, it will probably come from you, the reader. It costs money to do journalism. There is no way around it.
"What we do is expensive," Tony Berg, the publisher of the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, told me earlier this year. "I think the best way to ensure local news is in a watchdog role is to invest in a subscription."
American newspapers have been in decline for years, of course, but the industry has arrived at an inflection point. This is not a case of buggy whip manufacturers being displaced by the rise of automobiles. While there are scrappy little digital outlets helping fill news gaps in local communities, in many cities and towns across the United States, the end of newspapers will mean the end of news, period. The time to save the industry — the time to serve your community and buy a digital subscription to your local newspaper — is now.