The Dwindling Hopes For Journalism's Revival

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Pittsburgh is about to become the biggest U.S. city without a daily print newspaper, which means it’s a good time to ask ourselves: How are we gonna turn this thing around? It’s a pretty short discussion, actually.

Print media is dying a not-so-slow death, along with the newspaper industry, and strong local news coverage in general is becoming a thing of the past. The formula what worked for many years—local monopolies making newspapers fountains of money, which produced huge news budgets in local markets across America—is over, killed by the internet, Craigslist, Google, Facebook, and whatever magical technology will come next. We don’t need newspapers, but we do need news. So what is the model that will pay for it, going forward? There are a limited number of possibilities:

  • Most of the money that used to go to news outlets now goes to online advertising, especially via Facebook and Google. Suck some of that money back through either voluntary partnerships or redistributive tax policy and use it to fund journalism. (More on this idea here.)
  • Get the government to fund journalism directly. This is good in the sense that it affirms journalism as something in the public interest, but bad in the sense that it exposes media outlets directly to economic retaliation from government officials who don’t like the reporting. Imagine “country ass Republican Congressmen vs. NPR and PBS” on a much vaster scale.
  • Professional journalism is largely replaced by free social media, but the quality of it gets really good somehow (???????).
  • Just have less journalism. (This is what is already happening, and remains our default mode.)
  • Someone smarter than me thinks of a fundamental change in the media business model that will turn around the revenue decline of the advertising-driven model that has existed for centuries. I have no idea what this change might be.

What I do know is that these things will not work:

  • Relying on readers to directly fund journalism via subscription revenue—the mythical “I will write great things and my audience will just pay me for it” dream. There is not enough subscription revenue in the world to even come close to the amount of journalism we’re used to.
  • Relying on nonprofits/ foundations/ charities/ billionaires to fund journalism going forward. This can be great for the lucky few who are its beneficiaries, but is a recipe for having a tiny fraction of the reporting that we have now, particularly local reporting. Rich do-gooders who think it’s cool to fund ProPublica or the LA Times tend to be less enthusiastic about funding the Chickasha (OK) Daily Express.

So the overall situation of journalism in America today is: In non-cyclical, paradigmatic decline, with the only bright spots illusory and insufficient, with no real prospects for turnaround save a revolutionary change in our nation’s political situation or a revolutionary change in our nation’s approach to business regulation.

Laid-off journalists driving an Uber... now there’s a growth industry.