The media industry is in the middle of one of its patented bloodlettings, with a wave of layoffs hitting HuffPost, BuzzFeed, and Gannett. Multiple Pulitzer finalists have lost their jobs. BuzzFeed was hit especially hard. CNN estimated that around 1,000 jobs between the three companies will be lost.
The old excuses for why this keeps happening just won’t do anymore. People are still consuming news in large numbers. The right, which is reveling in the layoffs, has always hated journalism that doesn’t contort to its worldview, so the “people distrust the media” reason is bunk, too. We know what the real problem is: The unholy trinity of corporate greed and mismanagement, private equity bloodsuckers, and tech behemoths leeching ad money from news companies.
Verizon owns HuffPost and Yahoo News. Layoffs there haven’t just hit the media division of the company; in December, the company announced that it would lay off around 7 percent of its workforce, or over 10,000 employees. This is the kind of thing you would expect in a recession, or if the company was flat broke. Neither of those things are true. Verizon netted $30 billion dollars in profit in 2017, and due to the scam Republican tax cuts passed in 2017, the company got $4 billion in tax breaks—nearly enough to cover what it paid for Yahoo.
BuzzFeed, admittedly a much smaller company than Verizon, made over $300 million in revenue last year, according to the New York Times, but still loses money. It’s never been profitable. And as a result of that, a whole slew of its news division got the axe in the absolute shittiest way possible. (Hey, at least it still has this dumbass store.)
For Gannett, which owns USA Today and a slew of local newspapers around the country, things are not looking up anytime soon. Earlier this month, Alden Global Capital—a grim reaper for newspapers like the Denver Post—launched a hostile takeover bid of the company. The papers of record in major cities all around the country like Phoenix, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Memphis, Milwaukee, and others have already been decimated because of the aforementioned causes, including Gannett’s own mismanagement; if Alden gets its way, it’ll be the death knell for local journalism. (Full disclosure: The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Gannett was pursuing a bid for Gizmodo Media Group, but the bid was reportedly interrupted by the Digital First Media hostile takeover.)
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The problems, at this point, are obvious. The question of how they can be fixed is more difficult.
One way they won’t be is by relying on individual actions, like imploring people to disable their ad blockers and subscribe to local newspapers. Don’t get me wrong; either is a nice gesture on a personal level. But we need to start thinking about ways to improve the industry that are more collective in nature if we’re going to have any hope of saving this dying mammoth.
What does that look like? On a practical level, one step would be through regulation, and forcing corporations hoarding ad dollars—tech companies like Google and Facebook as well as ISPs and carriers—to either get out of that business or share a much larger portion of the revenue generated from it with media companies. As Lehigh University professor Jeremy Littau wrote in a long, informative Twitter thread, the reason the industry isn’t profitable isn’t because there’s no money to make:
Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley and others have covered a few different versions of what this looks like, but the end result would be the same: A redistribution of ad money to the news sites that people are actually visiting.
Another way to tackle the problem would be through public investment. God knows there are a million things we should probably tackle first, whether it be healthcare or climate change or infrastructure or education, but public financing for journalism would help relieve some of the reliance on ad money and the corporations stockpiling it. (As the Columbia Journalism Review reported last year, local governments costs actually tend to rise when local papers shut down.)
Considering the state of the government right now and how neither of these things seem plausible unless the debate shifts radically in the coming years, it’s also time to start thinking about plans of action if this ship ultimately sinks. Initiatives like journalism cooperatives have had mixed success so far, but as more and more good reporters, writers, editors, and artists flood the labor market, they could be the vision of a future of journalism that isn’t so reliant on millionaires and billionaires.
Eventually, something’s gotta give. Until then, we’re going to keep reckoning with these large-scale layoffs over and over again. Until then, more people are going to leave the industry entirely, and accountability for government and business—to the extent it even exists these days—is going to suffer for it. Until then, if you work in media (or any other industry): Organize your fellow workers against both the vultures you know and the ones you don’t, and start a goddamn union.