There’s no money in telling the truth

The local news industry is dying and in some towns it's already dead

We were watching Hoarders and a woman on the show felt like she was being persecuted by local code enforcement officers so she skipped City Hall and the local press and tweeted straight at President Donald J. Trump hoping he would intervene, and I know this isn’t the point of the show but my god what a depressing indictment of civic engagement and the waning influence of local news outlets.

The local news industry is dying. In some communities it’s been dead for a long time. A 2019 PEN America report found at least 200 counties in the United States weren’t covered by a single newspaper:

Since 2004, nearly 1,800 newspapers have closed, leaving American towns and cities — sometimes entire counties — without a meaningful source of local reporting. And the pace of closures is only accelerating as tech giants siphon off much of the ad revenue that once sustained the media industry.

Local newsrooms are vital institutions for transparency and democracy, and hundreds more are about to disappear forever.

The industry forecast was pure gloom even before COVID-19 annihilated news revenue streams and triggered mass layoffs. “I would call what’s happening in journalism a mass extinction event,” reporter Farai Chideya said in the PEN America report near the end of 2019. Now, reports Axios, the global pandemic presents an “existential threat for news media.”

This is the point in the essay where I’m supposed to urge you to subscribe to your local newspaper, if you have one. I used to make that pitch when I worked as a newspaper reporter. I can’t bring myself to make the argument anymore. Do it if you feel led to; it might help keep a hungry reporter employed for a few more years. I’m not optimistic that subscriptions can save the news business, though.

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Here, let’s look at some death spirals.

Overall newsroom employment in the U.S. (including newspapers, broadcasters, and digital-only news outlets) plummeted 23% between 2008 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. Newspapers led the freefall with catastrophic losses. Since the end of 2019, the New York Times reported, about 36,000 newsroom workers have been laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced. A nonscientific survey of my journalist friends this week found that the remaining employees are tired, underpaid, and more pissed off than usual.

Taking a look under the hood, here’s what happened to news advertising revenue since the turn of the millennium, according to the Brookings Institute. Note that digital ads sell for pennies on the dollar compared to print, which is why your local news site is probably plagued with autoplay videos and ONE WEIRD TRICK FOR BELLY FAT ads.

That’s not to say no one is making a buck on the internet. Here’s the Pew Research Center’s Michael Barthel, writing in 2019:

When it comes to display ad revenue – a form of digital advertising that include banners, videos and other advertisements that news organizations and other websites typically run alongside their content – half of all digital revenue went to just two tech companies: Facebook (40%) and Google (12%).

Make no mistake; poor management and worker attrition will play an outsize role in the news industry’s collapse, but tech behemoths are doing their part to strangle local news outlets as well. I thought of this fact as I read the news yesterday that ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt was donating $4.7 million to some local NPR newsrooms. Taken as a portion of Schmidt’s $13.9 billion net worth, that figure is the equivalent of you or me pitching in $30 for a pledge drive. Taken as a portion of Google’s $135 billion annual ad revenue haul, it’s akin to slapping a homeless person with a $5 bill.

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Finally, let’s consider subscriptions. The New York Times has been famously successful selling digital subscriptions since putting its articles behind a paywall in 2011. The company reported that it signed up 587,000 new digital subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, which is nothing to sneeze at.

For local news outlets, though, the subscriber ceiling is much lower. News is not a commodity, and poorer communities buy less of it. This 2019 Shorenstein Center graph shows digital subscribers as a percentage of the population in news outlets’ metro coverage areas:

When I lost my local news job around this time last year, I received a phone call from my favorite journalism school professor, a crusty ex-AP guy who we all feared and loved. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but he laid out his long view on the demise of journalism in the United States, which is that the founders enshrined it as a public good but left its administration to the whims of the market.

During the era when print mattered, only certain people could afford to buy a printing press and ink by the barrel: slavers, plantation dandies, various barons and tycoons and eccentric heirs. When the internet democratized publishing, newspapers’ precious column inches and advertising inserts were devalued. The demand for news remained constant, but publishers no longer had scarcity on their side.

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I was thinking last week about the newly minted journalism school graduates entering the job market in the middle of a global recession. I graduated during a recession too, but times weren’t nearly this dire and the industry had only begun its freefall.

I wrote a commencement speech for the class of 2020 on Twitter, and it resonated with a few people. I’ll share it with you here:

It will look like the industry is crumbling around you. That's because it is. It's been collapsing since before you were born.

You will feel like your bosses are underpaying and overworking you. They almost certainly are.

You will look around for role models and see people who seem tired, angry, and depressed. Many of them are tired, angry, and depressed.

You will take regular complaints and insults from the people who read your work, or skim the headlines, or just feel like yelling at someone.

You will frequently think about quitting journalism. Most of your friends from J-school will quit, if they ever start at all. You will silently judge them for taking jobs with better pay and less of a sense of purpose. On some level, you'll be right.

However difficult your job becomes, no matter how many new responsibilities you take on without a raise, friends will envy you. After all, you have an interesting job that occasionally changes the world on some level, and that allows you to speak truth to power.

Your words do have power.

Hucksters, PR people, and politicians will try to woo you. Never let them in.

Whatever power you wield, wield it for the working class, because you are a member of the working class.

The people who own your news outlet have different class interests than you. As a result, the opinion section will frequently baffle and disgust you. When wealthy people call to complain about your work, there's a good chance the owners will side with the callers.

You might make it longer than I did. I lasted 8 years. I won some awards, which I keep in a neat pile in my closet now. The important thing was that I occasionally made a difference with the help of trusted sources and the Freedom of Information Act.

Policies changed. Poor families got new schools. I'm not deluded enough to think my work was the sole deciding factor, but I know I did my part.

I've been out of the business nearly a year now, and mostly I remember those victories.

The praise of your colleagues will lose all meaning. Most of us will be forgotten within a few generations. All you have is your integrity.

As you expose injustices in your community, you may notice injustices in your own workplace: low pay for women, discrimination, wealth-hoarding at the top of a sinking ship. You might be afraid to fight, and you're right to be wary.

Every year, a new wave of hungry young J-school graduates will flood the shrinking job market, driving wages down relative to inflation. You will feel replaceable because you are replaceable.

Join a union. If your newsroom doesn't have a union yet, fight like hell to organize your coworkers. Be loyal to your colleagues. You have goals in common, and you suffer in the same ways.

Anyway. Good luck out there. Fight as long as you can.

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In brighter news, my band The Camellias just released a five-song EP on Bandcamp, Spotify, and Apple Music called “fear.” I’m proud of how it turned out, and I’d love for you to give it a spin. If you enjoy it, you can download it for $5 via Bandcamp or take home the full Camellias discography for $18.

In case you missed it last week, I released a new podcast episode with the guy behind the Twitter handle @YesYoureRacist and we had a lot of fun. You can listen to it here or subscribe for free to get future episodes via iTunes or Spotify.

The image at the top of the page this week is “Creation Myth” (1927) by Wyndham Lewis.