Journalists across the country burst into flames of panic this week, as bad news for the news business crested and erupted everywhere all at once.
Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire publisher of the Los Angeles Times, laid off 20 percent of his newsroom. Over at Time magazine, its billionaire owners, Marc and Lynne Benioff, did the same for 15 percent of their unionized editorial employees. This latest conflagration had ignited at Sports Illustrated the previous week as catastrophic layoffs were dispensed via email to most staffers. Business Insider (whose parent company Axel Springer also owns POLITICO) jettisoned 8 percent of its staff while workers at Condé Nast, Forbes, the New York Daily News and elsewhere walked out to protest forthcoming cuts at their shops.
The news business has always been cyclical, dipping during economic downturns and then improving on the upswing. But not so anymore, as our economy has been surprisingly strong of late. Nearly everywhere you look — the Washington Post, NPR, Vice, Vox, NBC News, Texas Tribune, WNYC, Barstool Sports, just to name a few — companies have axed huge swathes of staff. Newsroom employment is down more than 26 percent since 2008. Buzzfeed News is dead. The magazine business has atrophied, too, as newsstand revenues have fallen from $6.8 billion in 2006 to $1 billion in 2022. Looking on as the media business bleeds out, journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, a man who once evangelized for the industry’s electronic future, folded his hands in his lap like a mortician and asked in his blog if it was time to give up on old news. Citing the dark layoff news, Jarvis tidied the corpse-in-the-making. Trust in journalism has melted, he noted, and private equity shops like Alden Global Capital are cannibalizing their newspapers.
It would be far too dramatic to extrapolate from the disastrous week that journalism itself is dying. The New York Times is healthy. Thanks to good management and demographically vigorous readerships, the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star Tribune carry on. Cable, network and local TV news still toss off profits. But no matter how many heroic non-profit newsrooms like the Baltimore Banner and Daily Memphian take root, no matter how many Substack-like newsletters blossom or creators emerge to drop their videos on YouTube, you can’t deny the journalism business’ decline.
The cause of the business’ decline is simple. As tech analyst Benedict Evans succinctly put it in a post this week, “There’s very little you can say about the finances of the newspaper industry that you couldn’t have said 15 or 20 years ago. The old model went away: you had an oligopoly over both advertisers & readers, and real-estate agents and car dealers paid for your social purpose. Now they don’t need you.” Targeted advertising on the web has diminished the old advertisers’ complaint that 50 percent of their ad budgets are wasted and they just didn’t know which half. Now they do, and they avoid newspapers and magazines. Unless a publisher creates something so essential that readers are willing to pay for it — like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or POLITICO, which gets more than half of its revenue from paid subscribers — the sledding will be more than rough. It will be ruinous. [Continue reading…]