In my course on Media & Politics one of the themes I harp on is the centrality of newspapers to American journalism. This is a point that needs to be made to people under the age of 25 because reading a newspaper or finding one in the driveway every morning are experiences they do not necessarily have. To them, getting news from a newspaper is what using the telegraph would be to people of previous generations. These kids, like many adults, now get their news from "the internet" writ large, and they do not have any clear or meaningful mental differentiation between the the website of a newspaper (e.g., New York Times Dot Com) and any other site providing news. The same holds true for TV news networks – CNN isn't a TV station to an 18 year old; it's just one of many places on the internet that offers news.
It is not difficult for them to grasp that the business model of newspapers in the current media economic landscape is…perilous. Physical newspapers have a shrinking and aging audience. Newspapers' websites are competing with internet-only entities with vastly lower overhead costs. And their costs are lower, of course, because most of what they are doing is re-reporting things from newspapers. Same for TV news networks and their online entities.
The problem, as I emphasize, is that the vast majority of actual reporting is done by newspapers. Browse the various online news aggregators and pay attention within the stories. They inevitably link to or reference a story "originally" or "first reported in" a major newspaper. It's not as if Slate is hiring and sending out reporters. Some of the largest online entities have a skeleton staff of correspondents (maybe a DC / White House person) but they certainly don't have reporters working, you know, the city hall beat.
It's an inverted pyramid; as newspapers cut more and more staff (either due to legitimate economic necessity or takeover by venture capitalist types who just want to "run a lean operation") there is less and less reporting. And that's bad, especially when the number of "media outlets" re-reporting the work done by actual on-the-ground journalists grows. It's like quadrupling the number of car dealerships, making them all sell the same car model, and then not producing many of them.
Check out this story of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his mid-action photo of a car hitting protesters in Charlottesville – a photo he took on his last day working for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. The next week he started a job…running the social media account of a brewery. Why? It pays more and has more stability. While I don't begrudge the individual for choosing, as I would, the best paying and most stable career option, it's an incredibly sad commentary that our system better rewards tweeting for a beer company than producing iconic, sometimes world-changing journalism.
Mr. Kelly is hardly alone. Anecdotally, I know a ton of journalists (not including freelancers) and every one of them sweats out having a paycheck from month to month. Staff cuts and ominous meetings with the new managing editor and ombudsman are commonplace to the point of numbness. When the opportunity arises, they frequently switch careers. They stop doing real journalism and almost inevitably transition into more lucrative but (I say this without judgment) more frivolous work. Lots of kids used to grow up wanting to be a reporter like April O'Neill or Clark Kent; nobody grew up wanting to be a Brand Ambassador for a skincare pyramid scheme. Yet we all choose the latter eventually because we all need to eat. I get it. It's incredibly hard to make a lower middle-class income in journalism, a few high profile media outlets aside. I'd take the beer tweets job too, man.
In short, this is a totally unsustainable model. Almost all mass media depend on newspaper reporting as primary source material to endlessly repackage as "different" pieces as the ability of newspapers to survive financially (and employ actual reporters) shrinks every day. This edifice will collapse, and soon.