Why Is The News Business So Terrible?

“A collage of iconic news industry brands and related imagery like newspapers, radios, televisions, and web pages in a dumpster, on fire, digital art”

It’s been nothing but bad news for “the news” lately, and this week piled on two more depressing headlines: Gallup released a poll showing American confidence in the validity of mainstream news media is at an all time low, and The New York Times filed a trend piece noting that Silicon Valley companies, once a font of traffic for journalistic enterprise, are “ditching” news sites. Turns out that with link taxes, content moderation nightmares, advertising blacklists, and consumer fatigue, “news” is just more trouble than its worth for our modern attention merchants. Even Threads, Meta’s Twitter competitor, has decided to downplay the role of current events on its platform.

For those of us in who’ve been in the news business for more than a minute, this story ranks as a classic “dog bites man” story. The Times‘ piece turns on the news that Meta’s point person for news, Campbell Brown, is leaving the company. But anyone who’s worked with Brown over the past few years was already in on the joke. Brown was hired in 2017 to put a familiar face on Facebook’s tumultuous relationship with the press. Back in early 2019, when we were just starting The Recount, she was refreshingly direct with me when I asked if I should invest in a relationship with Facebook. In short, the answer was no.

The Recount went on to partner with Twitter, which back then was still the center of the online news universe. That partnership showed some promise for a few months, but our job was to cover the news, and the news was grim: Trumpism, pandemics, racially motivated murders – not exactly the kind of stuff that draws advertising dollars. And then Elon Musk came along. We merged The Recount with another news startup – one that wasn’t as focused on US politics –  and for the past year, I’ve been happily not running a news business (and happily off Twitter, as well).

But I can’t stop thinking about what’s gone wrong with our collective relationship to “the news.” What is it about the craft of telling people the truth that makes for such a shitty business?

Turns out, I’ll have to have at least a few decent answers to that question, and soon: I’m teaching a class on the business models for news at Northeastern starting early next year. It won’t be my first attempt at instilling young journalists with a sense of what they’re up against when it comes to business, as I taught pretty much the same class twenty years ago at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Then again, social media didn’t exist in 2003, and while print media was on the decline, it wasn’t yet considered dead and buried.

Since then, more than 25,000 journalism jobs have been lost in local newsrooms. As that decline steepened, I launched or invested in over a dozen more news-related companies, none of which moved the needle. It remains next to impossible to find reliable support for innovative approaches to quality journalism.  There are plenty of examples of success in what might broadly be called “news” – but precious few when you narrow the parameters to “hard news” – the day to day grind of beat journalism.

So what can be done about it? As you might expect, there are no easy answers. But here are a few approaches that newsrooms are taking, all of which are complicated by one simple reality: When people say they want the truth, they tend to want to hear their preferred version of it. And that leaves precious little room for fact-based journalism.

  • Make a go of it as a for-profit entity. Historically, this is how most newsrooms have been funded. Back when news outlets owned a monopoly on an audience attention and could command both advertising and subscription revenue, this model worked extraordinarily well. As we all know, the Internet has blown apart the information ecosystem. Consumers stopped paying for information they could get for free on the Web, and advertising revenue followed its audiences to Instagram, Google, and the Weather.coms of the world. Digital publications adapted by embracing events, commerce, content mills, soft news (to mollify advertisers), and premium subscriptions, but when your core expertise is news, it’s hard to be good at much else. National brands with established audiences (the Times, the Journal, the Washington Post) managed to grow during the digital transition, and cable and local television news outlets are still pumping out ads for pharmaceuticals, but for anyone else… All I can say is good luck, and godspeed.
  • Make a go for it as a for-profit entity, but go niche. A time-tested strategy in the post-digital news business is to focus on becoming indispensable to a niche audience willing to pay for your reporting acumen, as well as the niche advertisers who want to reach them. That’s the strategy behind the much-lauded site The Information, which covers technology, or Skift, which focuses on the travel industry. It was our strategy with Wired, The Industry Standard, Federated Media, Sovrn, NewCo, and even The Recount (our niche was politics). Of course, there are issues with this approach: Industry-focused sites are often too cozy with their industry colleagues, resulting in either conscious or unconscious bias in coverage. Plus, the point of “hard news” is to cover events that by definition are not niche – local government, school boards, the police beat and so on.
  • Get a Substack. There are myriad examples of independent journalism succeeding at the micro-niche level – Judd Legum’s Popular Information, Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American, Bari Weiss’ Common Sense. But a perusal of any of these newsletters belies their biggest problem: the author plays oracle and evangelist to a particular paying audience – leaving them open to well-founded charges of bias. Plus, one-person newsrooms do not scale as a matter of course. As soon as you start to scale up – as Weiss is attempting to do with The Free Press, well, you’re back to to all the other options on this list, with all their attendant problems.
  • Make the government pay for it. Believe it or not, a significant portion of liberal democracies have instituted some form of government funding scheme to underwrite journalistic organizations, though they mostly support television and radio broadcasts (then again, those organizations tend to also include online formats). The most well-known of these is the UK’s Television License, but similar approaches are in force in many European countries, as well as Japan, South Korea, and South Africa, among others. Steven Waldman, the CEO of respected local journalism non-profit Report for America, recently argued that investing government money into local journalism would pay for itself many times over, because journalists often uncover the kind of graft, fraud, and  self-dealing that impoverishes the communities they cover. Could it happen? Alas, I don’t think so. Given most Americans can’t even agree on whether or not a particular candidate won the 2020 presidential election, the idea that we might collectively agree to fund journalism at a national level feels like a non-starter. Not to mention, as a group, journalists aren’t particularly fond of being reliant on government largesse.
  • Ask the rich people to pay for it. Absent government action, funding for innovative journalism has fallen mostly to philanthropists, motivated as they are by a complicated mix of good intentions, political ambition, tax deductions, and ego. That’s how Report for America funds more than 300 local journalists around the world, and it’s how the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, and the Center for Investigative Reporting win their Pulitzers. And while they’re not non-profits per se, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Time – all storied journalistic brands –  are owned by what might charitably be called mostly benevolent billionaires. Unfortunately, expecting good-hearted plutocrats to prop up journalism is not a model that scales, nor is it a particularly stable long-term proposition free of potentially crippling conflicts of interest. While philanthropy is at the heart of countless smaller journalistic efforts like The SF Standard, alas, not every city has a resident Michael Moritz who’s willing to fund a pack of journalists eager to beat up City Hall.
  • Ask the corporations to step up. If you believe journalism is fundamental to democracy, and democracy is fundamental to stable economies, and stable economies are fundamental to business, why not ask corporations to step up and fund journalism as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility? All I can say to this idea is…it will never happen. Companies are nothing if not political actors, and as political actors, they are terrified of angering one side or another in our polarized society. Given that “the news” is believed to be an “enemy of the State” by nearly 30 percent of our electorate, the Boards of the Fortune 500 will never step up and support journalism, no matter how much they might hand wave in panels at Davos.

So where does that leave us? Facing a paucity of good options, I’m afraid. Of all of them, I’m partial to the idea of government funding, regardless of its complications. No matter what, however, I remain optimistic, for reasons I can’t quite explain (Insanity? Encroaching old age? Bourbon?). Perhaps it has something to do with the quote from The Atlantic’s executive editor at the end of that Times piece on tech platforms “ditching” the news business. “Direct connections to your readership are obviously important,” she told the Times. “We as humans and readers should not be going only to three all-powerful, attention-consuming megaplatforms to make us curious and informed.” Perhaps, just perhaps, a pendulum is starting to swing, and audiences will begin to tire of the consequences of being poorly informed.

One can dream, no?

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