What has happened in journalism in the twenty-first century is a version, perhaps an extreme one, of what has happened in many fields.
By Nicholas Lemann
Published on The New York Review of Books, Feb 13, 2010
Books discussed in this article
Justice in Plain Sight: How a Small-Town Newspaper and Its Unlikely Lawyer Opened America’s Courtrooms
The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century
The question arises at this point, why are there so many black sheep in journalism? Why so many “fakes”? Why is the epidemic of “yellow journalism” so prevalent? This phrase is applied to newspapers which delight in sensations, crime, scandal, smut, funny pictures, caricatures and malicious or frivolous gossip about persons and things of no public concern.
This was Horace White, one of American journalism’s most esteemed elder statesmen, writing in 1904. He continued:
When I entered journalism, the press of the country, with only one exception that I can now recall, was clean, dignified and sober minded. It had various aims in life, aims political, literary, scientific, social, religious, reformatory and mixed, which were deemed by the conductors of the papers advantageous to the commonweal. To make money by pandering to the vices and follies of the community, and thus adding to the mass of vice and folly, was generally unthinkable.
Journalists are eternally nostalgic, and alarmed at how things are now. Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth, published last year, is modeled on David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, published in 1979. Abramson remembers Halberstam’s book as a description of a “golden age” in journalism—the 1960s and 1970s. That attitude is typical of members of the generation now past fifty (including me), who find ourselves longing for a period some decades back in the past. Three other books under review here—Dan Bernstein’s on The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, California; Frederic Hill and Stephens Broening’s on The Baltimore Sun; and Dan Kennedy’s on (mostly) The Boston Globe—also use the term “golden age” to describe the newspaper business during the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Halberstam himself, in a new introduction to The Powers That Be that he wrote for a second edition published in 2000, remembered that journalism in the early 1970s, when he was working on the book, “seemed at a high-water mark.” He was far less sanguine about the present, though what he was worried about seems almost comically innocent now. The owners of major news organizations, he thought, were too closely attuned to enhancing their already substantial profits and not enough to their public obligations. Cable television was purveying “sex, crime, and a kind of dimwitted celebrity-obsessed journalism.” This was eroding the sanctity of journalism so profoundly that, for example, Tom Brokaw was occasionally leaving his proper home on the main NBC network to appear on MSNBC and CNBC! In his litany of the threats facing journalism in 2000, Halberstam didn’t think to mention the Internet.
The years since then have seen the economic devastation of the profession, which has been about as dramatic as in any sector of the labor market. Employment in newspaper newsrooms decreased by 45 percent from 2008 to 2017—and by 60 percent from 1990 to 2016. (Even so, newspapers, because they are declining from a high base, still have almost three times as many newsroom employees as digital-only news sites: 38,000 versus 13,000.) Newspapers’ paid circulation has declined from 62.5 million in 1968 to 34.7 million in 2016, while the country’s population was increasing by 50 percent. Just between 2007 and 2016, newspapers’ advertising revenue, their major source of income, declined from $45.4 billion to $18.3 billion (by 2016 Google was making about four times the advertising revenue of the entire American newspaper industry). Almost 1,800 newspapers, most of them local weeklies, have closed since 2004. This collapse is especially significant because newspapers were traditionally where most American journalists worked, and where most original reporting was done.
The overall numbers don’t have the punch of the specific stories of news organizations. Halberstam’s “powers that be” were The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBSNews, and Time magazine—all of which seemed Gibraltar-like forty years ago. Now all four have different owners. The Washington Post Company sold the paper to Jeff Bezos in 2013 for the bargain price of $250 million, after years of cutbacks and after having sold its sister publication, Newsweek, to Sidney Harman in 2010 for a dollar. Newsweek’s circulation, formerly more than four million, is now 100,000. Time, after a series of ownership changes and many cuts, was acquired by Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com, for $190 million in 2018. The Los Angeles Times was sold to the Tribune Company in 2000, and in 2018, many cuts later, to Patrick Soon-Shiong, a rich investor, who also bought The San Diego Union-Tribune. CBS went through several acquisitions, and is now the third-place news network. The Baltimore Sun, according to Hill and Broening, has reduced its editorial staff from a peak of 400 in the late 1990s to 80 today. The Boston Globe, according to Kennedy, has reduced its staff of full-time journalists from more than 500 to fewer than 285. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is down from more than 530 to fewer than 150. Formerly big papers like the Rocky Mountain News, The Tampa Tribune, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans no longer exist.1
Now that the golden age, if it was golden, is firmly in the past, it’s possible to understand it as having been produced by a quasi-accidental and short-lived set of circumstances. In the late eighteenth century, there were no journalists by the current definition; in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville treated the new country’s proliferating newspapers as a species of “association,” which functioned as organizing tools to influence politics and government, not as gatherers and purveyors of information. Even the celebrated muckrakers of the early twentieth century, as the sociologist Michael Schudson has pointed out, were writing for a small handful of magazines like McClure’s, not daily newspapers. The first Supreme Court decision addressing the role of a professionalized press didn’t come until the 1930s.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, newspapers were the only mass medium, and most big cities had several of them, competing in the boisterous manner memorialized in The Front Page, which is to say, without much in the way of a commitment to bringing public policy news before their readers. The rise of competitors in different media—radio, nationally distributed magazines, television—led to a mass die-off. Between 1945 and 1965, 421 daily newspapers merged or closed, most of them in cities. Afternoon papers, premised on being bought on the street and consumed on the way home from work, were especially vulnerable, because of the rise in commuting by car and the availability of the evening news on television.
The foundation on which the golden age rested was that in most of the major American cities, by the mid-1960s, the nontabloid, subscription-based morning daily newspaper had become a lucrative monopoly, generating profits of 20 or even 30 percent a year. Many of them adopted a journalistic version of the ethic of “corporate social responsibility” that big businesses have intermittently embraced over the last century, which in their case meant an economically irrational overinvestment in reporting. They were well rewarded for this in acclaim; what major publisher’s obituary doesn’t lead with a lifetime Pulitzer Prize count?
In his book Why Journalism Still Matters, Schudson says of the golden age, “This was a relatively brief period, not part of an unbroken tradition of great reporting.” Matthew Pressman’s On Press is a history of American newspapers from 1960 to 1980, focusing on two main examples, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Pressman adeptly shows how a number of forces converged to produce a new, and now disappearing, form of newspaper journalism. Newspapers became almost entirely economically dependent on advertising, partly because most of them calculated that underpricing their subscriptions would pay off in larger circulation that would justify higher advertising rates. In Breaking News, Alan Rusbridger reports that the paper he edited, The Guardian in London, spent all of the money it took in from subscribers printing and delivering the paper to them. As he puts it, “newspapers increasingly sold not just news to readers, but also readers to advertisers.” What was perhaps not so golden about this age was how powerfully newspapers oriented themselves toward pursuing readers who could spend freely on consumer goods, so as to please their advertisers. Christopher Martin, whose No Longer Newsworthy is a complaint about the death of journalism for the working class, devotes a chapter to quoting from the advertisements that newspapers took out in trade publications, boasting about the affluence of their audiences. Meanwhile, coverage of labor declined and changed its focus from the health and strength of unions as institutions to the inconvenience strikes imposed on consumers.
In this era, newspaper journalists were becoming white-collar: paid better than they had been before,2 and more likely to be college educated and to think of themselves as independent professionals with the stature to question government officials and other institutional authority figures. The big newspapers’ enhanced profitability financed this status upgrade. Television and radio had eroded their ability to be the prime deliverers of basic facts about daily events; newspapers responded by turning to what Pressman calls “interpretive journalism” and Schudson calls “contextual journalism.” Look at the front page of a first-rate American newspaper, and you’ll probably see that only a minority of the stories are summaries of events from the previous day and that several of them entail the reporters gathering information on their own and using it to present a conclusion they have drawn. That represented a big change from the newspaper tradition before the 1960s, which was more neutral, stenographic, and focused on official events.
In 1980, the end of the period Pressman covers, I was the kid reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post. Psychologically, we weren’t so different from a prestigious department at a major university: we were intensely dedicated to our work, we were hyper-competitive and aware of our status within our professional peer group, and we had an exalted sense of the social function we were performing. The world seemed to offer assent to our view of ourselves. What Rusbridger writes about The Guardian was also true at the Post: “Prime ministers, generals, spies, archbishops, princesses, ambassadors, bankers, film directors, presidents, rabbis, oligarchs and business leaders would come to lunch at the drop of an invitation.” It never occurred to us to worry about the Post’s economic prospects—especially after its only remaining competitor, The Washington Star, folded in 1981. The Post had hundreds of reporters, in the newsroom and all over the world, including several units of investigative reporters who were given months or even years to pursue their projects.
To the extent we thought about it at all, we would have said that subscribers read the paper because of the news coverage. Humility, for the Post’s national staff, meant understanding that more readers might be subscribing for the sports and style sections than for the national report. The idea that many readers valued the newspaper merely as a miscellaneous package of information (high school sports scores, stock tables, movie times, weather predictions), or even that some people read the paper mainly for the ads, would have seemed absurd. So when the Internet arrived in its public form in the 1990s, many journalists who weren’t reflexively resistant to change saw it as a potential godsend. A newspaper could gradually transition from print to digital publication and reach a much larger audience while shedding the cost and inconvenience associated with printing and distributing the newsprint version of the paper. Already accustomed to making money on advertising, not circulation, newspapers could take a small further step and adopt the model broadcast television used: a free product that handsomely supported itself by assembling a mass audience hungry for the content the staff produced and delivering it to advertisers.
What nobody imagined was that a really good search engine could attract an audience many orders of magnitude larger than any news site, without producing any original material at all—or that, a few years later, a social network whose content was mainly produced by its own users could replicate the same feat. Alan Rusbridger’s memoir of his editorship of The Guardian is like a museum of the newspaper business’s evolving theories of its future during this period. The traditional newspaper, delivered as a website, would be the model. No, the Internet was a democratic and informal medium, so there would have to be bloggers in addition to conventional reporters. No, that wasn’t enough, there also had to be enormous quantities of new material delivered constantly by armies of unpaid contributors. No, newspapers had to deemphasize their own sites and send each story out into cyberspace to find a life on its own on social networks.
Rusbridger managed the new world about as well as any newspaper editor—he transformed his paper from a second-order player in Britain into a global leader in online journalism, as measured in both audience size and in prestige—but his account leaves the impression that newspapers were trying to fight an overwhelmingly effective grand strategy by the tech companies with a series of tactical maneuvers that were bound to fail. Google and Facebook found a way to match advertisers with potential customers much more effectively and cheaply than newspapers ever did or could. In The Return of the Moguls, Dan Kennedy quotes Nicco Mele, former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, giving this stark example: a full-page print ad in his old paper cost about $50,000; a digital ad that reached an equivalent audience cost about $7,000; a Google-generated ad that appeared on the Times’s website—auctioned to the advertiser through a Google system the Times had joined—might bring the paper $20.
Newspapers in the online era, swelled by misplaced pride acquired during their heyday, thought they could build large audiences for their websites by producing great journalism. They often delivered on the journalism but, economically, that was pitifully insufficient. It’s hard to remember now, but in the 1980s and 1990s there was tremendous frustration, especially among activist groups on the left and right, with the top-down, controlled, serenely centrist tone of the leading news organizations. The advent of cable television as a much looser media regime than broadcast may have been upsetting to David Halberstam, but it wasn’t to media reformers. When the Reagan administration took away most of the old restrictions that accompanied broadcast licenses—regulatory changes that paved the way for the rise of right-wing talk radio and Fox News—there weren’t many complaints. And the Internet seemed like another opportunity to open up mass communications to multiple voices and to give consumers more choice.
The ensuing explosion of voluntarily produced material enabled Google and Facebook to build far larger audiences than traditional media companies would have thought possible, without creating any content on their own—only software that put users in the way of material they found useful or entertaining, some of which was news. Google’s and Facebook’s business, as they defined it, was providing free access to whatever information a user might want—not to distinguish between what was true and what wasn’t, or between news and opinion, or to try to expose users to a variety of views instead of reinforcing what people already thought. It would have been easy for the two giants to launch news divisions, but why bother? Most news organizations would feel they had to cooperate with them in some way because of their much greater reach; and, under the crucially important Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Google and Facebook were protected from legal liability for information they disseminated, as long as they hadn’t produced it themselves. They have always insisted that they are in the distribution business, not the content business. Most of the current controversies about Google and Facebook, especially Facebook, are nearly inevitable consequences of their basic business premises: pursue scale above all, indiscriminately allow all possible material onto the site, and gather data about users relentlessly so it can be provided to advertisers.
Journalists are addicted to hope. As the bad news has kept rolling in, even at nonnewspaper sites like BuzzFeed, Vice, and HuffPost that were supposed to represent the digital future but have lately been laying off journalists, optimistic scenarios still keep popping up. The two main ones at the moment are that news organizations can succeed economically by switching from advertising to subscriptions as their main source of income, and that wealthy patrons will buy news organizations and support them as money-losers out of public spiritedness.
The success of The New York Times’s subscriber paywall—the Times now has 3.5 million digital subscribers—is always offered, and rightly so, as Exhibit A in the paid subscription argument. Jonathan Shieber, writing in TechCruch after the release of a recent Times quarterly report to shareholders, was practically exultant:
Those numbers, added to a newly robust Washington Post, a consistently profitable New Yorker and the erection of paywalls at sites across the vast reaches of the internet, point to a very simple lesson learned—people will pay for quality reporting, videos, personal writing and exclusive information.
Because the Times is a one-publication, publicly held company, we have more data about it than, say, the other two publications Shieber mentions, both of which are privately held. The Times, by its own account, is heavily discounting its digital subscriptions (the average subscriber pays just under $12 a month), and as a company it generates profit margins of just below 10 percent, compared to Facebook’s nearly 40 percent (the Times’s annual net income in 2018 was $126 million, versus Facebook’s $22 billion). And, because of its quality and its reach, it is in a very small category.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a depressing chart showing that such outstanding regional daily papers as The Seattle Times and The Dallas Morning Newshave been able to convert fewer than 1 percent of their formerly nonpaying digital readers into paid subscribers. The figure at The Washington Post, which has the enormous advantage of access to Amazon’s super-efficient payment system, was under 2 percent, and at the Times under 4 percent. The uncomfortable truth is that, in the Internet age, most newspaper readers have found that they can get most of what they want to know from other sources.
A new report called “For US Journalism, the Future Is Brighter Than You Think,” by the supposedly hardheaded Boston Consulting Group, says:
Journalism has benefited from various forms of subsidy, support, and benevolence. It’s probably not coincidental that historically the Times, the Post, and the Wall Street Journal were family controlled and operated, with motives and missions other than simply maximizing profit. A new generation of billionaires, including Jeff Bezos, Patrick Soon-Shiong, and Marc Benioff, appear to be stepping into a similar role in their ownership of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine, respectively.
But the trouble with wealthy patrons is that they appear unpredictably, are most reliably interested in the more nationally prominent properties, and over time aren’t always as generous and committed to editorial independence as the staffs of the organizations they acquired might have hoped.
John Henry bought The Boston Globe from The New York Times Company in 2013 for $70 million (the Times had acquired the Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993), and at first, Dan Kennedy reports, “all was hope and optimism.” But “a little more than three years later, reality had set in…. Like nearly every other owner of a daily newspaper, Henry was losing money.” The Globe is now exploring a variety of cost-reducing ideas. And Boston is lucky. Benign local buyers for big newspapers are rare; the more common experience is closure, continued decline under the old owner, or sale to a low-budget chain, a hedge fund, or a private equity firm, all of which are likely to cut aggressively. Think of another area where something is deemed absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of American society: education, old-age pensions, infrastructure, national defense. How much salience would the argument have that the best system for providing it would be informal voluntary patronage? Journalism about matters of public importance either isn’t actually essential, or it needs a more reliable support system, because in most instances its sources of commercial revenue have collapsed, possibly forever.
Ten years ago, when I was dean of Columbia Journalism School, I was invited to the Justice Department in Washington to speak to the senior staff of the Antitrust Division about an exception to the antitrust laws that the newspaper industry, by then fully awakened to the threat posed by Google and Facebook, had requested. American antitrust law doesn’t prohibit monopoly, but it does prohibit industries from setting prices in concert, which was what the newspapers wanted to do, by setting industry-wide terms for papers’ provision of their news stories to the big online platforms. (The newspaper industry, with support from its allies in Congress, is trying to get an antitrust exemption again now.) The Justice officials’ skepticism was palpable. Wasn’t this just another dying industry trying to save itself by claiming a high enough public purpose for its work to justify what amounted to a government bailout? Couldn’t somebody else figure out how to provide news in a new, probably digital way so that it would be profitable without the government’s help?
Michael Stamm’s Dead Tree Media is not obviously pertinent to the current moment—it’s mainly a history of The Chicago Tribune’s activities in the paper-mill industry during the middle decades of the twentieth century—but it does remind us that for newspapers and other private news organizations, as in other industries, government has always been part of the picture. The best-known example is the artificially low postal rates granted to periodicals, which helped launch the newspaper business of the early republic. Will Slauter’s history of copyright and the news, Who Owns the News?, shows that the industry has been trying for many decades, mostly unsuccessfully, to get economic protection in the form of intellectual- property rights for news stories.
Stamm’s book is primarily about the long reign of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the Tribune’s owner. Fans of A.J. Liebling will remember McCormick as one of his favorite targets—a galumphing, self-important isolationist buffoon—but in Stamm’s telling McCormick was also a business genius who set up a media giant that did everything from grow trees to employ paperboys across a great swath of the Midwest. The Tribune operated a paper-mill company town in Canada, and adeptly took advantage of the public policies of two national governments in areas from trade to hydroelectric power generation to canal construction. Stamm observes that the Tribune’s operation wasn’t so different from the system of giant server farms that Google, Facebook, and other tech companies operate all over the world, which are located in part according to where the companies can get the most generous government concessions. It’s a sign of how strongly habituated American journalists are to thinking about their institutions only in terms of good and bad owners3 and not of policy choices that Halberstam, while grousing about television in 2000, didn’t mention the industry’s recent deregulation as a major cause of everything he found alarming.
Both of journalists’ prevailing fantasies about the history of our work—that we have always operated in a libertarian environment, and that original independent reporting on public affairs is an unbroken American tradition going back to the founding—are actively unhelpful in finding a way out of our predicament. The flourishing of reporting took place for a brief historical season, under an unusual set of economic and policy circumstances that are unlikely to recur. It was a happy accident, not an embedded feature of American society. But that hardly means that it’s now time to say goodbye to such journalism, or to be reduced to praying for some kind of magic solution to come along.4 There are plenty of examples from other fields in which originally commercial activities stopped making money but were preserved because of their obvious social value (opera, or streetcars and subways), or of activities the market supported to some extent, if not to the extent the country needed (such as pure scientific research).
In order to think productively about the future of journalism, it’s necessary first to identify exactly what we’re talking about. Contrary to the automatic prejudices of journalists, not every person employed in an editorial job at a news organization is performing an essential democratic function. (Rusbridger cites a study of five major daily newspapers in the United Kingdom, conducted in 2008, showing that only 12 percent of the material they published was original.) Contrary to the automatic prejudices of Internet visionaries, at least in the early days, not everything posted online about public affairs is of equal value. Professional work done by institutions is different from “citizen journalism,” and the creation of new information through original reporting and research is different from commenting on the information that is available to everybody. All the absorbing questions about how Facebook, Google, and the rest should curate material they carry that is hateful, offensive, intentionally misleading, or even dangerous are a separate matter, because most of that material is produced by volunteers; as in broadcasting, its prevalence varies with regulatory restrictions, not with the health of news organizations.
The advent of the World Wide Web generated a great deal of excitement about the online world’s potential as a new zone of absolute free speech. And it has turned out to be wonderful for self-designated solo journalists who mainly comment on politics and culture (and the businesses that give them a platform), but not for reporting conducted by organizations with paid staffs, obligated to be faithful to facts and truth in what they produce. For that, professional, institutional, funded journalism is a necessity. Back in the 1990s it was common to hear predictions (from outside journalism) that privileging free speech over professional journalism would produce wonderful political outcomes. The late Internet visionary John Perry Barlow, in a 1996 speech at the Davos conference, declared:
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
But in the event, as Michael Schudson darkly puts it, “If there is any kind of new politics that has been disproportionately enabled by new communications technologies, it is probably international terrorism, not democracy.”
The urgent question the economic collapse of newspapers poses is how to replace the original information they used to generate and don’t any longer. If one wants to be optimistic, one could say that such information would claim an authority and trust that social-media posts do not; but even if it doesn’t, the information has public value. At the top of the list of disappeared journalism is local reporting (original reporting on Donald Trump, which is the opposite of local reporting, is one of the bright spots in American journalism at the moment). A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center found that the number of full-time reporters assigned to cover state capitols had declined by 35 percent since 2003, and the decline has surely continued since then.5 Twenty-five reporters covered the New York statehouse in Albany when Theodore Roosevelt was governor in the 1890s; in 2014, early in Andrew Cuomo’s governorship, thirty-eight reporters were covering a vastly larger state government. That’s shorthand for a larger category: coverage of municipal government and the major private and nonprofit institutions in a community, investigative reporting, and international reporting are also highly valuable and severely depleted.
Michael Clay Carey’s The News Untold, an ethnographic study of journalism in three small rural Appalachian communities, offers the hope that such papers could draw badly needed attention to poverty. His own careful research demonstrates how pathetically under-resourced these papers are. Carey interviews the owner of one of his small-town papers in the barbershop where he cuts hair three days a week, because the paper can’t support him full time; the paper’s editorial staff, consisting of one person who was hired through a temporary employment agency, is also part-time. Carey’s call for the papers to become less boosterish and more “inclusive” in their coverage is affecting, but with what resources would they undertake this? It would be possible to ask poor people to tell their own stories in such papers, but that wouldn’t be much different from starting a group conversation online. As Schudson asks, “What news items have the president or the Congress, governors or mayors, or corporate executives been forced by law or public opinion to respond to?” Outside of work produced by news organizations, “Little or none, I suspect.” In poor small towns, far more than in Washington, such reporting requires subsidy.
The closest we have to a systemic solution to the collapse of this kind of journalism is the impressive growth—from a very low base—of nonprofit news organizations that focus narrowly on journalism of high public value rather than try to replicate the entire range of a traditional newspaper. These include investigative reporting organizations like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting; single-topic organizations like InsideClimateNews (on the environment), The Trace (on guns), and The Marshall Project (on criminal justice); and local news websites like Voice of San Diego and The Texas Tribune. One big-city mainstream newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, recently became a nonprofit, and another, The Philadelphia Inquirer, is now owned by a nonprofit. Nonprofits like Report for America, Ground Truth, and the American Journalism Project place paid-for reporters in newsrooms all over the country. Most of these organizations depend almost completely on philanthropy, and don’t charge either their readers or the conventional news organizations that publish their work. The total resources this sector receives seem to be on the order of only $300 million a year.6 It has about three thousand editorial employees nationwide. Some newspapers, like TheGuardian, directly solicit foundation support for special projects and also ask their readers for voluntary contributions.
Because public-service journalism has never been able to sustain itself in the marketplace, it needs some outside support system or it will disappear. For part of the twentieth century, monopoly big-city newspapers lived on advertising that was, compared to current online methods, economically inefficient for the advertisers. For television news, a regulatory system made stations profitable while requiring them to broadcast public service material. For news organizations with wealthy patrons, the support system is obvious, and also unpredictable. For nonprofit news organizations, the donors are the patrons, but the government helps too: without the tax advantages that the American system confers on nonprofits and their donors, they would not exist. Elsewhere in the world, the model of public media, like the BBC, is a common support system for journalism in democratic societies, and even here NPR and PBS, though they get only minor public funding, were founded by the government.
No source of funding for journalism comes without the potential for editorial distortion. In the days of daily newspaper street circulation wars in the early twentieth century, the push was toward sensational crime coverage. During the advertiser-supported golden age, as Matthew Pressman points out, it was toward consumption-promoting lifestyle journalism. He also observes that reader-supported Internet journalism pushes editorial content in a more ideological direction—one that reaffirms, rather than challenges, what a news organization’s audience already thinks. So does cable news. The flaw of regulated television network news was its excessively sober, centrist, and determinedly uncontroversial outlook. Patron- and foundation-supported journalism tends to focus on issues that are important to wealthy philanthropists—more coverage of climate change, less of labor organizing—and to expect direct political and policy results that journalism can’t often achieve.7
Then there is another option, imperfect like all the others, for saving journalism: direct government subsidy. Almost all American journalists react to this idea with a strong visceral recoil, especially now. But the severity of the situation demands subjecting our automatic assumptions to more careful scrutiny. Government support can be structured in many different ways; great portions of the independent truth-seeking activity in the United States are funded by the government, reasonably successfully, despite enormous built-in potential for political interference. The Federal Reserve employs many more professional research economists than any economics department. Public libraries, almost all the time, are permitted to acquire their books and research materials freely. University research—indeed, universities generally, including private universities—are overwhelmingly supported by the government, including when their work touches on politically controversial subjects. Most of the basic research establishing global warming as a phenomenon was conducted either by government employees (like James Hansen of NASA) or by government-funded researchers, despite the powerful political opposition to this kind of science.
Such government funding systems require several layers of built-in protection from the whims of elected officials. Usually these are peer-review mechanisms that determine where funding goes specifically and ensure that it cannot be cut off capriciously without warning. The administration and Congress fund the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, but they don’t directly approve each individual grant. Of course, this system isn’t perfect, but no other funding system is either. A 2009 report by Schudson and Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, suggested establishing a Fund for Local News, which would distribute money to appointed state boards that would review applications from news organizations.8 These could be newspapers, radio or TV stations, websites, startups—anybody who could do good work. The boards would make irrevocable multiyear grants, based on the applicants’ specific plans about what to cover, and could renew the grants (or not) based on the quality, reach, and influence of the coverage they funded. The media reform group Free Press, in a report published last year, called for the establishment of a Public Interest Media Endowment, which could distribute its funds either to state or local entities or to the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the requirement that the funds support original local reporting.9 Victor Pickard, in Democracy Without Journalism?, calls for the creation of a government-funded or -owned, employee-controlled category of local news organizations.
Stephen Gillers, in Journalism Under Fire, endorses Downie and Schudson’s proposal and appropriately protected public funding for journalism more generally. He also explores creating some form of legal distinction between professional and citizen journalists, so that the former could achieve the longed-for, but never attained, federal protection of our relationships with confidential sources. Gillers is a law professor; it’s unsurprising that, in the conversation as it stands now, policy solutions to journalism’s crisis usually come from outsiders, because journalists are so powerfully socialized to embrace a libertarian view of our work. That would be fine if the market had any meaningful chance of fixing the problem, but, for reporting with a public mission, it doesn’t.
What has happened in journalism in the twenty-first century is a version, perhaps an extreme one, of what has happened in many fields. A blind faith that market forces and new technologies would always produce a better society has resulted in more inequality, the heedless dismantling of existing arrangements that had real value, and a heightened gap in influence, prosperity, and happiness between the dominant cities and the provinces. The political implications of this are painfully obvious, in the United States and elsewhere: in journalism, the poorer, the more nativist, the angrier parts of the country (which vote accordingly) are the ones where journalism can’t deliver on its public promise because of its severe economic constraints. Journalism is a case in which it’s going to take a whole new set of arrangements, and a new way of thinking, to solve the present crisis.
- 1These examples come from an excellent report about the state of American journalism by Viktorya Vilk and James Tager of PEN America. ↩
- 2In His Girl Friday (1940), one of several movie versions of The Front Page, Walter Burns tries to lure the star reporter Hildy Johnson out of retirement by offering her a $25-a-week raise. ↩
- 3Liebling memorably captured this way of thinking: “The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings.” ↩
- 4Lydia Polgreen, the editor in chief of HuffPost, recently suggested that advertisers collectively commit $50 billion a year to placing expensive and economically inefficient ads with news organizations, out of a public-spirited commitment to journalism that they have never previously demonstrated. ↩
- 5Katerina Eva Matsa and Jan Lauren Boyles, “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press,” Pew Research Center, July 14, 2014. ↩
- 6Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media by Matthew Nisbet, John Wihbey, Silje Kristiansen, and Aleszu Bajak. Working paper copublished by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, 2018. ↩
- 7“The New Advertisers: How Foundation Funding Impacts Journalism,” an article by Patrick Ferrucci and Jacob L. Nelson that appeared last year in a journal called Media and Communications, goes into detail about some of the perils that foundation funding poses for journalism. ↩
- 8“The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2009. ↩
- 9Timothy Karr and Craig Aaron, “Beyond Fixing Facebook,” Free Press, February 2019. ↩
Published in the February 27 issue of The New York Review of Books