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.

54 thoughts on “BRAIN DRAIN”

  • It's not just journalism.

    Eighteen years ago, I got my first full-time job writing, and spent the next six years writing books nobody reads about software nobody uses, at a defense contractor. Fame is not really in the cards when everything you write requires a security clearance and a need-to-know; my first five books were read by literally a dozen people. I think I started that job at $55,000 a year.

    Couple years in, I discovered that I had more work than I had time to do it, and right about the same time, a successful midlist fiction author (couple dozen published books, a handful still in print) / adjunct English professor was complaining at me that they couldn't pay the fucking rent. So I hired 'em.

    It seemed preposterous to me then — and still does now — that the invisible hand of the market was pushing down on the side of the scale of bullshit computer documentation harder than both "published author" and "English professor" COMBINED.

  • Spent last month reading Carl Hiasen novels. Our local newspaper has been taken over by new management about…lemme see…I think only 3 or 4 times now, counting last week's acquisition.

    Kinda like our electric company.

  • btw, @Huey:

    Does anybody get to do anything fun anymore, or is the choice now either corporate droid or one step up from homeless?

    It seemed preposterous to me then — and still does now — that the invisible hand of the market was pushing down on the side of the scale of bullshit computer documentation harder than both "published author" and "English professor" COMBINED.

    Thinking I may have to actually read this:
    Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You'll Never Hear

  • There needs to be accountability and some kind of kickback. I don't understand how Budweiser gets money every time their ad is shown on a website, but the NYT doesn't get anything every time their reporting is repackaged and shown on a website. If the money flowed as it should, there should be a huge incentive to do original reporting.

  • For this reason I started subscribing to WaPo– I don't get the paper but that's not the point. The point was to support the journalism.

  • I remember a time when newspapers brought me the news, the whole news and nothing but the news. These days, precision reporting, previously a priority, appears to have been cellared.

    By the time I get to read my newspaper, every event appears to be either a teaching moment or fodder for diminishing those who, deplorably, don't share the paper's pov.

    It comes as no surprise to me that salary levels, particularly in the print news business, disappoint the recipients. Were they to do a bit of fact-checking, somewhat a lost art, I predict they'd soon realize that, as so often before, Shakespeare was right when he has Cassius say, "The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are losers", or something.

  • The money quote from the crusty ol' Thornton Hall:

    Reagan the principled small government conservative, John McCain the Maverick, and Paul Ryan the wonk are three myths with one cause: the post war media business model of appealing to the broadest possible audience requires framing political debates as a battle between to equal and opposite parties. You can’t sell Republicans and Democrats the same newspaper AND tell the truth that Republicans lie about their actual plans and make racist appeals in order to gather enough votes for policies that only a tiny minority support.

    Da link

  • Yeah, the LA Times has been sold (again) and is leaving its iconic downtown building. Our local paper (Memphis) was bought (by Gannett aka USA Today) recently-ish, and is no longer printed locally, so you can't even get the scores for last night's basketball game in your morning paper.

    Since I'm foily, I'd say our corporate masters' nefarious plans are coming along quite nicely : )

    (Also, fuck the Huffington Post for "pioneering" the practice of ripping off content and not paying their writers. Facebook, too.)

  • @Mo, Hiaasen's day job of course is as a columnist for the Miami Herald. If you haven't read his columns, check 'em out– he's really good.

    (Also, I should go back and reread his books and take a break from the goddamn news before my head explodes.)

  • I run a small community journalism website. Our daily newspaper shit the bed a few years ago after being swallowed up by a conglomerate.

    Through donations and grants from a couple of small businesses and foundations, we are able to pay a handful of freelance writers to keep tabs on the local town councils and school board.

    I don't take a salary (I have a full time job elsewhere) and our board members are volunteers. So you can see where that's not a business model, it's charity. We are a tax-exempt.

    We are in three digital advertising networks. We had 110,000 unique visitors last year. We grossed about $2,600 from advertising last year — and I'm told that's actually exceptionally good. (And I'm worried it won't last. I hear stories about small web publishers getting kicked out of digital ad networks for no apparent reason, and with no appeal — or of payments being stopped suddenly without explanation.)

    I regularly write grant applications to large foundations and get rejected. "Sorry, we don't pay salaries." "Sorry, your audience isn't big enough." "Sorry, your model isn't scalable."

    But without us, there would be fuck-all local coverage in our town.

    I'm just venting. I have no solutions. As someone who cares about journalism and democracy, I have to tell you, it keeps me up some nights.

  • Newspapers are dead. Not dying. Dead. And not hyperbolically.

    Oh, the Washington Post and NYT will continue on as functioning entities for a long time yet. But across the country, newspapers have laid off 75% or 100% of their staff and cut the pay of the survivors by 75%. What remains is not functional in the way known by people over the age of 40. There's no one left doing investigative journalism or looking for stories at all. The people that remain attend press conferences and write up what they are told. That's all they have time for in the day.

    Suggestion: take a newspaper, any, and try to determine the origin of each story. Was it fed to the newspaper, or something they dug up themselves that annoys the powerful? For most papers, 100% of their content is type 1 and 0% is type 2. Even for the NYT and WaPo, almost all their content is type 1.

    The industry is dead and isn't coming back.

    But Ed is (sorta) wrong. This is sustainable, in the sense that it's going to continue on. The public doesn't know or care the difference between "PR stenographer for the government and powerful" and "afflicter of the comfortable". And the PR people who generate the bulk of stories for "newspapers" can just as well start with Slate or Huffington Post. The "news" will smoothly move (already has) to a lower-quality filler type of news, and no one will really notice.

  • carrstone: Have you never heard of Yellow Journalism? Or Hearst?

    Your mythical world never existed.

  • There are shining exceptions.

    ProPublica, a nonprofit largely sustained by grants, does real investigative journalism, and only that. Routinely breaks news. PP "partners" with dozens of mainstream outlets in all media to get the stories out. In just 10 years they've earned gobs of awards, including 4 Pulitzers. And they're growing.

    Talking Points Memo, sustained by subscriptions and ads, does real investigative journalism, breaks news. Also growing. Politics is a narrow beat, yes, but in a democracy arguably the most important.

    These two do not a counter-trend make, for sure, but they represent two successful models of ways forward for real journalism.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Great post, Ed.

    What really frosts me are websites that steal all their material from the "lamestream media" while relentlessly bashing it. Most (not all) of these are right-wing sites.

  • postcaroline says:

    I live in a community where the newspaper is still independently owned. That's not to say the reporting is superb or anything – it's just exceedingly rare.

    Anyway, I can't help being reminded of the Commission on Freedom of the Press (aka the Hutchins Commission) from the 1940s. The Commission's team of scholars – none of them journalists – assessed the historical role and current status of newspapers, books, radio, periodicals, and television in the United States. Publishing magnate Henry Luce had commissioned a report on the role of mass media in a democratic society; what he expected was an endorsement of the American media landscape, stating Americans enjoyed the greatest access to information in the whole wide world. Luce therefore was very unhappy with the Commission's actual findings, specifically its criticism of media monopolization and the concentration of ownership. These guys on the Hutchins Commission (and they were all guys) were sounding the alarm in 1947 that concentration of ownership and the decline of independent media would have an increasingly deleterious effect on freedom of expression. They warned that concentration of ownership would restrict the range of diversity of ideas expressed, that owners would prioritize profit over social responsibility, and that owners' personal biases would distort the quality of reporting.

    Anyway, the committee members were labeled communists (by the mainstream press, of course) and Luce distanced himself from the report.

  • One way this hurts is how little information is available for local elections, not even party affiliation. Hard to vote when you know nothing about the candidates.

  • There are some obvious points the market gods are making us dance around.

    1) Understandable, fact-based information is essential to the functioning of a democracy. It's one of those — quaint, antique — Public Goods.

    2) When it's facts people do not want to hear, which are the most essential, they are not, ever, going to pay for them.

    3) The market-based model of providing the essential public good of news is fundamentally impossible. It's in the same class as for-profit justice or for-profit medicine. It is never going to work, it can't work.

    The unavoidable conclusion is that the livings of those essential people called to telling people the facts of their lives have to be provided by some model that is not profit-based.

    Personally, I think government funding is the right way to go. Information is a critical function, and funding doesn't have to mean bias. Judges are government-funded but we don't assume they're all controlled.

    Get the money by a tax on the hardware / paper used to get the news?

  • Sixth Column says:

    Let's not forget the impact of strip-n-flip Wall Street firms like Romney's Bain Capital. According to Jon Carroll (SF Chronicle), before the paper got bought they had lots of reporters staff and still made a 3 or 4% profit, which was a viable business. After they were acquired with borrowed money, lots of assets were sold off and people dumped, and then the paper was re-sold. The new owners had to show something like 15% profit to pay off the debt and still continue operations– a much more daunting task. And then the internet took off. . . .

  • Let's be clear what we're talking about here. Journalism was never a profitable business. The profit was in publishing–the packaging and distribution of journalism. When the old publishing model collapsed, it could no longer support journalism or anything else, and that's where we are.

    Newspaper publishing has been dying for decades. Get over it already. We need to get on with finding viable ways to support journalism. Big capital tried and failed, but that's not the only way, thank God.

    To the two successful startups I mentioned above, I'll add a possible recovery story. I'll skip the VERY long, sad narrative and go to the end: at the beginning of last year the remnants of the two major Philadelphia papers and their joint online venture were given to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and over that year the combined and retooled business actually made a profit.

    @oiojes: wetcasements is right–the Guardian needs your help more than Bezos does. So do ProPublica and Talking Points Memo.

  • "Spent last month reading Carl Hiasen novels."

    All of them?

    I think I've read everything he's written that isn't a child or young adult's book–in novels, I mean.

    His columns were always hilarious (well mostly) but there was always a fairly unsubtle hint about Florida gummint being unbelievably corrupt.

    His novels are something I look forward to.

    Don't go loo

  • Well, that might be embarassing to someone who fears a loss of propriety.

    Don't go looking for the truth if you can't do anything with it, seems to be an operating principle in journalism, today.

    I remember, as a kid, wondering why the newspaper had mostly conservative/reactionary op-ed and seemed to just NOT report some news.

    Then when I was maybe 8 yo, I figured it out. They didn't care if it was true as long as it made them look good or somebody else look bad.

  • @Tim H.
    The USA is one of the few countries in which the politician is more important to the election result than the policies for which he's received a mandate, 'looking good' trumps 'getting things done' every time.

    You know that can't be good because at least half the country complains about the idiots that are representing the other half.

  • And this is why I pay for print and digital subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post (as if Bezos needs more of my money), the WSJ, the Atlantic and others. Someone has to pay for this stuff or one day it won't be there.

  • @dc, as a (former, it's actually been a pretty long time since I lived there) Florida Man, I can assure you that the state who gave us such noted figures as Jeb Bush and Rick "Bat Boy" Scott is pretty corrupt. My dad's a native who's always lived there, and he's STILL pissed about what The Mouse did to his beloved central Florida.

  • It doesn't help when the local population are hostile to the local paper to begin with. The paper from my hometown reported on an ICE raid where the agents didn't present a warrant when asked by the property owner (the suspect was an employee of his), and it was basically a chorus of #fakenews in the comments section.

    ICE releases a vague non-answer about the raid 24 hours later and of course its the Journalist that's being duplicitous.

  • The New Yorker is also print-based journalism–it also has an online presence, but their stories really dig deep. Of course, they take a while to plow through…

  • *should have said print-based journalism that is doing fairly well. Or at least I think it is doing fairly well…

  • I guess if we had a field investigator working on it we'd learn about the economics of online newspaper subscriptions and whether they could one day take over for dwindling paper subscriptions. Maybe no one is getting paid to research that. Meanwhile the NY Times keeps tabs on my "free articles" and WaPo and the Guardian provide none at all. I'm not cheap, just poor. Negative income last year and not proud of it.

    Otherwise I might be like a friend and pay for subscriptions with the attitude of one making charitable contributions.

  • I’ll skip the snarky observation about the disappearance of buggy whips and butter churns from the marketplace. The loss of journalism is a different sort of loss from the marketplace of ideas and bodes unwell for democratic institutions, such as they are. Disrupting effects of the democratization of production (irony noted) are being felt throughout society, which like most cultural shifts has pros and cons. The biggest disruptive effect is the sheer speed of change. Our institutions simply can’t keep up. While some are quite satisfied with that state of affairs (typically, if in on the ground floor of some wave, like Bitcoin in 2009), social stresses that create fundamentally discontinuous experience in the world between and within generations of people should not be taken too lightly.

  • @Brutus
    Did you not ever consider that the loss of journalism ‘bodes unwell for democratic institutions’ might be completely the wrong way of seeing things? Could it not be that journalists, keen to further their own agenda, are, in fact, the ones destroying our freedoms by partisan reportage?

  • @Major Kong
    Conquest by defamatory abuse, one step nearer the Progressive Imperium.

    It appears, then, that I not only have forbidden opinions but the ones I have are not what I think they are.

    Way to persuade me that your brain can accommodate sane reasoning.

  • Oh quit whining. You’d have lasted about one day in the Air Force, which is hardly the toughest branch of the military. I was trained under the “fear, sarcasm and ridicule” method.

  • "Of course, they take a while to plow through…"

    Reading; it's so, so, "yesterday's news"!

    I had a nice wood fired pizza this evening (somebody gave me a $50 gift certificate and I'm stretching it to 3 visits to a place that sells $15 pizzas that are quite good, if out of my usual price range.

    I sat next to a nice couple at the bar. She works with the emotionally compromised and she works for the local college (I realized typing this out that people might think I was speaking of the wife–I have no idea what gaymarrieds use other than "partner" and the customary sobriquets) and the one who has the degree in english was totes sad about the level of writing that she had to decode in her job–and she doesn't deal with students.

    I meet a lot of really smart young college people but they seem to regard writing as a thing that is not necessary after th tests are done.

    @ geoff:

    Yes, the Mouse that gobbled up most of the middle of the middle had a fuck of a lot to answer for.

    I always liked it when I found out that something from one Mr. Hiaasen's novels turned out to be true like the guy who drank malathion to prove it was safe and then died. That the guy, B.T. Collins, a Cali pol instead of one of the Sunshine State's didn't die until 12 years after he drank it didn't really matter that much.

  • Re: Orlando: in the past 20 years, I've had to go to Orlando for various software and technical conferences. It reminds me a lot of Vegas, where I've also gone for conferences: a third-world shithole awash in fake glitter and chintzy schmaltz, the whole things supported by thousands of poverty-stricken peons.

    Re: Literacy. It just struck me this morning that not only is Ed a great writer, but the commenters here are a precious source of complete sentences, basic English spelling and grammar. Anecdote; I spent yesterday at an Earth Day festival at a local college. There were a variety of professionals with printed materials, but also a bunch of local vendors with handmade signs and labels. Some of the handmade ones were so bad that you couldn't tell what they were trying to convey. The local vendors were all adults, and the ones I spoke with had the local accent; it wasn't as if they'd only just arrived in the USA.

  • @carrstone

    Did it ever occur to you that "journalists, keen to further their own agenda, are, in fact, the ones destroying our freedoms by partisan reportage" is precisely the loss of journalism?

  • @Brutus

    No, I didn't. To me the loss of freedom is more important, much more important, than the loss of journalists or the hackery they ride in on.

    And not a tear will be shed, not by me, anyway; they're the ones who've dug their own grave and they're welcome to lie in it. It's just a shame that it's taking Joe Public so long to turn their backs on CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Post and the like.

    Not that I'm uncritical of Fox and the Murdoch empire. I am, from time to time, conscious of some reactionary opinions from them, too.

  • "the commenters here are a precious source of complete sentences, basic English spelling and grammar."

    I do not RESEMBLE that remark! {;>)

    I'm not sure why but the price of lettuce and eggs has really soared in the last month or so. I'm guessing, ICE sweeps in California's Central Valley.

  • @Demo; not only are the farm workers all being arrested by ICE, but now all the romaine lettuce is contaminated be e. coli.

    As for eggs; try to find someone with backyard chickens and see if they'll sell you eggs. I get mine from someone a mile away for about $2/dozen and I can see how the chickens live and know what they're being fed–bugs, table scraps, and chicken feed, which is more healthy than commercially kept chickens.

    Also, you English gud.

  • I buy the bulk of my groceries @ Aldi or the local store for a regional chain. I buy produce at the farmers market when they actually grow it and I can afford it.

    I'm sure that I buy a lot of agchemistry I'd rather not, but I don't buy a lot of prepared foods of any kind so there's that.

    Someone asked me yesterday or the day before if there was anything cogent in my rant and I told them that there was and told them what it was and then they asked if I could do that instead and I told them that I prolly couldn't, 'cuz not tryin' to prove I'm a good writer–trying to have fun.

  • Many, possibly most, liberals think that newspapers with conservative opinion pages and columnists are hopelessly tainted by pro-corporate content. This really has not been true. Through luck and good writers and editors, conservative opinion-page slants rarely leak into news content. It happens, but not as a rule.

    Almost all newspapers staffed by educated professionals have some background in news principles; they are much more solid sources of information than almost any web source. We shun newspapers at our peril, because the alternative is whatever propaganda corporate America shoves in front of us. It'll get worse until the price we're willing to pay for reliable information approaches what corporate propaganda costs us. We'd better hope we find a way to make this happen.

  • "Through luck and good writers and editors, conservative opinion-page slants rarely leak into news content. It happens, but not as a rule."

    You work for WSJ's "Blowin' smoke up the proles' asses" department.

    Washington Times.
    Manchester Union Leader.
    Every MOTHERFUCKING bit of dysinfotainment media owned by Sinclair, Clear Channel, Murdoch, the Moonies, Pat Robertson

    are all media that have NO lines drawn between "opinion", "hard newz" and "makin'shit up".

    And that's without looking for anything.

  • I love how tidy and neat this post is, and agree with all of it… except of course for one detail: taking better jobs "to put food on the table". These are college graduates, not people struggling to eat. If they have a large family, sure, but I know a few solo journos who are taking better-paying jobs, not to out food on the table, but just to keep up with the pace of capitalism. The system is fundamentally flawed on a lot more levels than facebook scraping newsfeeds, but I'm sure you realize that. Zuckerzoid may be an android who is clearly pathological in his disregard for humanity – but he's still basically "just doing his job". Just like the journos I know who all switched to writing for gimmicky ad-centric industry magazines, he's not doing it to put food on the table, but to compete with someone. It' killing everything, and everybody, not just the news, erm, for lack of a less obviously outmoded word – papers.

Comments are closed.