Journalism may never again make money. So it should focus on mission
America is struggling with several crises, most notably a radical, antidemocratic leader and movement controlling one of its major political parties. America’s journalism industry is also in crisis: Its traditional funding sources are drying up, leading to mass layoffs.
Right now, these crises aren’t that connected. But they should be. The journalism industry should reorganize itself to focus squarely on America’s crises, both to help the country and give itself a clear mission and purpose that could make it more financially viable in the long run. We need more reporters reading environmental impact studies and school-improvement plans, with salaries funded by readers who are essentially giving a tithe to democracy. And perhaps fewer journalists in football stadiums.
We are in the middle of one of the worst times for the news business in my lifetime. The local newspaper industry has been collapsing for two decades, since the internet began siphoning revenue from print advertising. National print journalism and television were doing a bit better and then had a resurgence during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency, which captivated the country and alarmed left-leaning Americans. But the Trump Bump went away after he left office. Web traffic and TV audience data suggests Americans are much less interested in news about Trump’s latest presidential campaign compared with his runs in 2016 and 2020.
And it’s now clear billionaires aren’t a panacea for the news industry. The Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, and other super-wealthy individuals who have purchased news outlets haven’t been as successful making money in journalism as in their other businesses and have cut staff to minimize their losses.
Put all that together and you have layoffs happening throughout the journalism industry (Business Insider, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine just in the last week) - even as the U.S. economy is strong and Trump is back in the news.
The journalism industry itself and the public need to fully embrace a shifted landscape. The era when many news outlets were also successful businesses is over - and might never return. Foundations, wealthy individuals, average Americans and even local and state governments, much more than in the past, are being asked to subsidize news outlets through subscriptions or donations. Public radio stations holding fundraising drives used to be an anomaly in an industry largely funded by advertising. But in the future, it is likely that lots of news organizations will essentially be charities, asking rich people and also you to help them provide a critical service that the market won’t support.
So what kind of journalism should Americans be willing to fund? Three kinds in particular. Government and policy news, particularly at the local and state levels; watchdog journalism that closely scrutinizes powerful individuals, companies and political leaders; and cultural coverage, from important books and movies to faith and spirituality.
Why those things? They capture the major crises in America: the antidemocratic drift in the Republican Party; the growing, often-unchecked power of corporations and the wealthy; the rampant homelessness, drug addiction, declining life expectancy and other problems affecting America’s less fortunate; the increasing effects of climate change; and a decline in connection and community as Americans navigate a world full of social media but lacking religious congregations and other community-based groups.
Aren’t news outlets already on top of those crises? Not completely. Americans living in rural and suburban areas often have little information about school boards, city councils and other decision-makers in their communities because their local papers have been cut to the bone. News organizations at the local and national levels are reducing cultural coverage, wrongly believing it is unessential.
Even politics isn’t covered particularly well, despite national news organizations committing many resources to that subject. For example, Republican officials have essentially adopted a comprehensive policy agenda (huge personal income tax cuts and school vouchers are two signature items) in the two-dozen states they control. But there is very little news about those policies, except for abortion, because most national news outlets define “politics” as the White House, Capitol Hill and congressional and presidential campaigns. A single state legislature adopting a provision isn’t always that important, but two dozen of them doing so is.
The New York Times last year published a story that argued Republicans have “no unified legislative agenda, clear leadership or shared vision for the country,” seemingly announcing that the paper isn’t following state government that closely. The news media’s vision of pro-democracy coverage must extend beyond scrutinizing Trump and a few other high-profile, radical Republicans.
The journalism I am calling for doesn’t have to be dull. Supporter-funded outlets that focus on government and investigations are sprouting up all over the country. That’s welcome news: I have spent the last decade publicly pleading for these kinds of outlets to be created. But I struggle to read their work. It’s often long, overly detailed and dryly written. That’s a mistake. Great climate reporting could be done in tweets or infographics; some of the best policy journalism is in sharply written opinion columns.
This journalism also doesn’t have to be overly negative. Watchdog journalism is supposed to be adversarial. But I desperately want to read about communities that are fixing their homelessness and education problems so that those areas can be models for the rest of the country. Much of Americans’ “news fatigue” is the result of being constantly presented with problems and rarely with solutions.
This journalism should fully move away from the false equivalence and minimization of the radicalism of today’s Republicans that still plague the field. News outlets shouldn’t be overtly in favor of the Democratic Party the way that MSNBC is. But liberals tend to be more concerned about Trumpism, climate change and inequality (the crises I identified) than conservatives and are therefore more likely to support journalism that focuses on those issues. So they shouldn’t be asked to fund news organizations whose ethos is essentially “Republicans too radical, Democrats too woke” and act as though left-wing college students and right-wing governors are equally big problems in America.
In the old world of journalism, the goal was to build the biggest audience possible to appeal to advertisers. But today, a news outlet being honest about Republicans is both solid journalism and good business, catering to its paying customers.
So when they are begging you for money, news organizations should have digestible, occasionally positive content about power, politics and culture. What about everything else?
College and pro sports, restaurant openings, TV listings, the ups and downs of various stocks … all of that was in the daily newspapers of the past. If the only news source in a given community is a supporter-funded outlet, it should prioritize an education reporter over a pro football writer. But if sports or entertainment coverage draws consumers to an outlet and helps subsidize more serious journalism, I’m all for it. The New York Times is the rare news organization thriving financially in part because people pay for its recipes and for games such as Wordle.
Can journalism survive with this public-interest mindset? I am not sure. But with the decline of clear for-profit models, this feels like the only path left. And while it’s one general direction, this approach has many permutations. In Baltimore, Boston, D.C. and other cities, a super-wealthy individual is helping fund a local paper. Louisville Public Media has radio programs, a website and an investigative arm, all backed by a broad fundraising base. Numerous foundations are supporting Capital B, which has a specific focus on Black Americans living in the Midwest and South.
I don’t expect there to be as many full-time journalists in America as there were in 1998 anytime soon. I am not optimistic about the future of my profession. But I am not fatalistic about it either. Decades ago, journalists helped inspire the nation to end Jim Crow in the South. More recently, they have brought much-needed attention to America’s enormous income and racial inequality and been an important check on Trump’s antidemocratic actions.
The rise of Trump unfortunately hasn’t created a profitable journalism industry. But it can create a purposeful one — if journalists bring their unique skills and strengths to America’s crises and Americans embrace them for doing so.
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