My first job in media was as an assistant at The American Prospect, a small political magazine in Washington, D.C., that offered a promising foothold in journalism. I helped with the print order, mailed checks to writers—after receiving lots of e-mails asking, politely, Where is my money?—and ran the intern program. This last responsibility allowed me a small joy: every couple of weeks, a respected journalist would come into the office for a brown-bag lunch in our conference room, giving our most recent group of twentysomethings a chance to ask for practical advice about “making it.” One man told us to embrace a kind of youthful workaholism, before we became encumbered by kids and families. An investigative reporter implored us to file our taxes and to keep our personal lives in order—never give the rich and powerful a way to undercut your journalism. But perhaps the most memorable piece of advice was from a late-career writer who didn’t mince words. You want to make it in journalism, he said? Marry rich. We laughed. He didn’t.
I’ve thought a lot about that advice in the past year. A report that tracked layoffs in the industry in 2023 recorded twenty-six hundred and eighty-one in broadcast, print, and digital news media. NBC News, Vox Media, Vice News, Business Insider, Spotify, theSkimm, FiveThirtyEight, The Athletic, and Condé Nast—the publisher of The New Yorker—all made significant layoffs. BuzzFeed News closed, as did Gawker. The Washington Post, which lost about a hundred million dollars last year, offered buyouts to two hundred and forty employees. In just the first month of 2024, Condé Nast laid off a significant number of Pitchfork’s staff and folded the outlet into GQ; the Los Angeles Times laid off at least a hundred and fifteen workers (their union called it “the big one”); Time cut fifteen per cent of its union-represented editorial staff; the Wall Street Journal slashed positions at its D.C. bureau; and Sports Illustrated, which had been weathering a scandal for publishing A.I.-generated stories, laid off much of its staff as well. One journalist recently cancelled a networking phone call with me, writing, “I’ve decided to officially take my career in a different direction.” There wasn’t much I could say to counter that conclusion; it was perfectly logical.
“Publishers, brace yourselves—it’s going to be a wild ride,” Matthew Goldstein, a media consultant, wrote in a January newsletter. “I see a potential extinction-level event in the future.” Some of the forces cited by Goldstein were already well known: consumers are burned out by the news, and social-media sites have moved away from promoting news articles. But Goldstein also pointed to Google’s rollout of A.I.-integrated search, which answers user queries within the Google interface, rather than referring them to outside Web sites, as a major factor in this coming extinction. According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, Google generates close to forty per cent of traffic across digital media. Brands with strong home-page traffic will likely be less affected, Goldstein wrote—places like Yahoo, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Daily Mail, CNN, the Washington Post, and Fox News. But Web sites that aren’t as frequently typed into browsers need to “contemplate drastic measures, possibly halving their brand portfolios.” [Continue reading…]