The hollowing out of American journalism

Another 2.4 million Americans, our friends, our families, our neighbors, filed for unemployment for the first time this week. In the nine weeks since the self-isolation began, 38.6 million of us are unemployed. These are staggering numbers that only keep climbing.

Yesterday, Variety published its annual ‘what media executives make’ and it’s quite the read, pandemic and coming depression notwithstanding. Media companies argue that their execs should make bank because it reflects the CEO’s performance. 

Variety writes:

But the nation’s largest companies no longer believe that’s the appropriate yardstick for their achievements...

The new light casts unflattering shadows on some of the chiefs in our group. Take [Bob] Iger. The Disney executive chairman’s $47.5 million package made him our highest-paid chief for 2019. It would take 911 years for average Disney employees — a group that includes low paid theme park workers — to make as much as he did last year. But his company ranked 858 among the 922 that JUST Capital analyzed in paying workers a living wage, 893 in charging fair prices for its products or services and 908 in paying the CEO fairly in relation to workers. 

Today, The Atlantic, following in the footsteps of almost every major publication who generates significant portions of its revenue from ads and events, sent a memo to staff informing them that 68 staffers (roughly 20 percent), across sales, edit and events, are being laid off; execs are taking a pay cut and implementing a pay freeze.

The Atlantic, which has been at the forefront of coronavirus news and information, is majority owned by Laurene Powell-Jobs, who’s worth about $20-ish billion, raising the question: what’s the point of having a billionaire owner if they can’t put their finger in an exploding dam?

And there will be more to come. We’re going to see trade publications reduce staff, as they try to claw out of a decimated events business. We’re going to see national newspapers tighten their belts as ad revenue continues to nosedive. We’re going to see digital outlets and print publications go out of business. Media companies will have to do some serious soul searching. 

The question should not be whether we’ll return to an environment that brings back all these jobs, but whether the executive class (both at journalistic outlets and corporate America, at large), should be earning several hundred times more than their average employee. 

Another question: how will the notions of journalism change? Local journalism is gone; B2B journalism has bent the knee to marketing; investigative journalism is expensive; commodity journalism (think earnings reports and box scores) is being taken over by AI software. So, with outlets laying off staff or shutting its doors, what will journalism look like next year, next decade?  

This matters because we’re witnessing, in both real time and in slow motion, the hollowing out of American journalism. The economics don’t line up, and this will have a destructive effect on society. As we talked about last week, the notion of a free press, that the First Amendment gives us the right to openly criticize the government without fear of retribution, takes body blow after blow with every layoff. 

It creates a vacuum for disinformation, for hoaxes, for lies. See: Plandemic. Fewer reporters covering elected officials means that politicians can speak unanswered to citizens. This has been slow dripping for years, as politicians, instead of giving interviews, will go directly to Twitter or Facebook or Medium or YouTube. (Side note: this is true of both parties; President Obama’s White House took to Medium, often.)

The democratization of media, that old saw for the internet, has been flipped on its head.

Instinctively, we know this is bad. Now we have data supporting this: in a new Pew research study released yesterday, it found that how you view the media’s role in the pandemic determines on where you get your information:

“about half (51%) of those who rely most on Trump and the task force say the outbreak has been made a bigger deal than it really is, compared with just 8% who say it’s been downplayed too much (40% say it’s been approached about right).”

“Overall, those who rely most closely on the White House for coronavirus news make up 16% of all U.S. adults. The group is almost entirely Republican or Republican-leaning (92% of this group, accounting for 32% of all Republicans), overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white (82%), and older than the public overall.”

Additional research published this week suggests that the older you are, the more likely you are to spread disinformation.  

Nieman Labs’s (and friend of this newsletter) Josh Benton pointed out on Twitter

“Someone who’s 75 spent the first ~55-60 years of their lives in a world where published or broadcast media could be broadly trusted to be factually accurate — so their skepticism muscles are underdeveloped for social media”

This matters because with fewer journalists, people (especially older people) will rely more on their Twitter and Facebook feeds for information, and less on reporting. And that is not healthy.

Donovan, “Season of the Witch”

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox. If you’re in media and have been affected with a furlough or layoff, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. Even if just lending an ear. You can also send me tips, or just a note to say hi!

Some interesting links:

  • Facebook and Twitter are terrified of Trump (Popular Information)

  • AT&T won’t remove fake 5G logo even after ad board says it’s misleading (The Verge)

  • Salesforce’s 6th annual State of Marketing report (Salesforce)

  • Aiming for novelty in coronavirus coverage, journalists end up sensationalizing the trivial and untrue (Nieman Lab)

  • Virtual tour of Brooklyn before it was a brand (New York Times)

  • How COVID-19 will shape the Class of 2020 for the rest of their lives (TIME)