Public Funding of Journalism Is the Only Way
There is no other magic solution. I promise.
In April 2007, Conde Nast launched a splashy, glossy, prestige-dripping business magazine called Portfolio. They hired big name writers and spent $100 million on the project. In 2008, the magazine’s web staff was laid off, and the monthly publishing schedule was reduced. By May of 2009, Portfolio was dead. It would go down as the last real big money magazine launch before the reality of the death of print media sunk in. “We believed in the editorial concept and still do,” Conde Nast exec David Carey said at the time. “The problem in terms of the ad franchise was that the timing turned out to be terrible, launching right into the teeth of a very deep recession.” Sure, sure.
The Messenger, which folded abruptly last week, was the online media version of this story. Swaggering media boss announces ambitious plans, hires hundreds of people, burns eight or nine figures, builds the Titanic, and crashes directly into the cold iceberg of reality. Just as Portfolio was the nail in the good days of print, The Messenger was the same for news websites. It sucks to be the last soldier to die in a war, or the last reporter to be laid off after the industry definitively turns away from where you’re sitting. But it has to be someone.
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There was, however, a significant difference between the stories of these two doomed publications. In the case of Portfolio, although the media was shifting away from the print world where it was rooted, it was shifting into something else: online media. As much as it sucked for the magazine writers, that underlying shift was good for a lot of other writers like me. In the case of The Messenger, I’m afraid, the zeitgeist is more grim. The death of the online media industry, which has now reached its irreversible phase, is not a case of an industry transforming so much as it is a case of an industry disappearing. The journalism jobs currently being slashed at what seems like every single publication in America are not migrating into jobs at publications that utilize some new form of technology. They are just going away. “Creative destruction,” so beloved by economic theorists, can be scary but beneficial in the long term. This is not that. This is just destruction. The reporters being laid off now are not going to go get jobs at an intriguing news startup in a few months. They are going to get jobs outside of journalism, because the journalism jobs have simply been eradicated.
A lot of people in the media industry understand this already, as a nauseating feeling in their gut. In the general public, which has a hazier idea of how this business works, there is (reasonably enough) a lack of urgency. I think that most people who don’t work in journalism feel upset when they see a publication that they like fold, or when a writer they like is laid off, but there is a baseline assumption that journalism itself will keep on cranking more or less as usual.
That is not true, which is why this is something that you should worry about even if you’re not a person on text threads full of skull-and-bones emojis sent by newly unemployed friends. To understand why, it’s helpful to understand how news is produced. Besides fringe things like New York Times t-shirts and wine clubs and that cruise you pay to go on with a bunch of writers for The Nation, there are two basic ways that publications make money:
Subscriptions. Traditionally, subscription revenue was a small piece of the pie. Newspapers and magazines wanted large subscriber numbers in order to be able to charge high ad rates, so they kept subscription prices low enough to attract as many readers as possible. As ad revenue has plummeted—first, because online ads were much cheaper than print ads, and then because even the online ad market dried up—a lot of publications have tried to increase subscription revenue to fill the hole. Supporting a publication purely with subscriptions is possible for very small places like How Things Work (it’s just me), or for some select kinda-small places like Defector (a couple of dozen people), but it is simply not practical for large newsrooms, or for publications with a smaller readership base. You should, and must, pay for subscriptions to any publications that you read today and enjoy, or I promise you that they will not be around for long. But subscription money will never get big enough to make up for…
Advertising. This is the big one. In the good old days when newspapers had local advertising monopolies, they were fantastically profitable. Great profit margins. If you wanted to sell cars in Baltimore you had to buy ads in the Baltimore Sun and therefore the paper could have bureaus in DC and Europe and tons of reporters and put out a good product. It was, in retrospect, a golden age. But what happened? The internet. Everything became national, and global. The local advertising monopolies were no more. You don’t need to thumb through your local paper looking for sales at JC Penney. You can just Google it or check Amazon or Facebook. Online media sites thought for a while that they would be like newspapers on your screen, charging healthy ad rates for display ads on their websites. Turns out you can’t charge that much for display ads on most websites, and also the tech platforms that I just mentioned have themselves monopolized the online ad market. Ad revenue—first in print media, and then in online media—disappeared. Thousands of news publications, particularly local ones, have folded. The money that supported news is no longer going to news companies. It is going to tech companies.
So next time that you wonder, “What happened to all the nice newspapers and magazines and perhaps even websites that I remember reading from my halcyon youth?” just imagine Google and Facebook and Amazon as three vampires, sticking a straw into the media business and sucking it dry. The tech platforms figured out how to insert themselves between the news producers and the news audience. The ad money that used to fund news now goes to the tech companies. They took it and now the news companies don’t have it to hire journalists with. That’s why your local paper sucks and your favorite website is dying. When you pull back, it’s pretty simple.
This is not a case of publications dying because they weren’t good enough and consumers made the independent choice of moving their dollars to new and better publications, which flourished anew. No. This is the attack of the middlemen. I must admit that I kind of admire the cleverness of the big tech companies in figuring out how to extract all of the revenue from journalism without actually making any journalism. Smooth move. Also a problem. Did you see the problem? That’s right: the places that make the journalism are not getting the money and therefore they stop making journalism and the places that are getting the money instead do not make journalism. So where does that leave journalism? Nowhere. Which is to say, the place we are rapidly approaching now.
To be slightly less dramatic in order to head off people waving around The New York Times: A small number of prestigious national news publications, or niche publications with a very strong hold on their niche, will probably be okay, and everything else will perish, quickly or slowly. That “everything else” includes, most notably, local news. Local markets are too small to produce the scale needed to make national ad revenue and they don’t have enough paying subscribers to sustain big newsrooms. The economic model of local news is dead. From the perspective of, you know, rapacious hedge funds, this is not a problem—they will pick over the corpses and suck the marrow from the bones and then they will move on. From the perspective of citizens of the United States, though, it is a big problem. When there are no reporters watching the city council and the mayor and the sheriff and the local police department and the businesses and the lobbyists and the state legislators and the governors, guess what happens? All types of shady shit. The dissolution of journalism’s business model is bad for people who like to read news, and it is really bad for healthy civic society. With each passing month there are fewer reporters tasked with watching the most powerful people and institutions and making sure they are not, for example, embezzling money and taking illegal campaign contributions and beating innocent suspects with batons and abusing prisoners and union busting and polluting local waterways and generally being corrupt or at least contemptible. The amount of bad behavior that is happening right now, in your city and county and state, that you will never know about because there is no one left to report on it…. is fucking mind blowing.
Bad situation. Having taken too long in this preamble, let me get right to the point: There is only one (1) way to save American journalism now. That way is: to publicly fund journalism. If we accept that journalism is not just a business or a form of entertainment but a public good, then funding it with public money makes perfect sense. Having credible journalists covering local news and state news is every bit as much of a civic good as parks and fire departments and schools. Horrible, horrible things are going to happen if we do not make it possible for journalists to watch the government and other powerful institutions. The economic model that made that possible for more than a century is smashed, permanently. It will not be resurrected. Subscription revenue, even if it rises modestly over time, will not be enough to replace what has been lost. There is no other solution. The collective efforts of the media companies, the journalists ourselves, and the public that wants to have journalism to read should now turn to convincing the government to fund news. That is the only thing that’s gonna work now. Take this to heart.
Now I will briefly address the two objections that I know are rising to your lips, because I have heard them all before. The first is, “Public money is not the only hope. There are other things. How about nonprofit newsrooms? How about worker owned cooperatives? How about foundation money? How about if me and all my urbane friends who appreciate the significance of this issue resolve to subscribe?” All those things are well and good. I like Pro Publica and its many regional clones as much as the next guy. But please, big picture: There is not enough foundation money in the world to replace the ad money that has been lost. That is a solution that will replace a lot of journalism jobs with a few. (To begin to appreciate how many jobs have been lost, just peruse this entire page.) And worker-owned coops are great, but they are drawing from the same pool of revenue as everyone else. A recent working paper by two economists estimated that if news publishers got a 50/50 split of the revenue they are generating for Google and Meta alone, it would be something like $12 billion per year. That is the scale of the hole we’re talking about. That hole can be filled with either journalists, or with Maseratis owned by Google investors, but it will not be filled with donations from the Ford Foundation.
The second common objection is “Impartiality! We don’t want the government’s dirty money tainting the news!” Okay. Time to get over that. It is possible to insulate journalists from public money at least as well as they were insulated from the private money of advertisers. If your position is that public money will irrevocably taint journalism but the biggest companies in America buying ads will not, I submit that you have not thought about this issue very deeply. Furthermore, there are already existing examples of states funding journalism, evidence that the nature of this problem is dawning, at least in progressive states. But California, for example, which has dedicated the most funding of any state, has approved $25 million. That’s nice, but very, very insufficient. We need billions, which means federal money.
There are, of course, some serious obstacles to achieving this. One is that right wingers since the Nixon era have made “hating the media” into a pillar of their success, guaranteeing that Republicans will oppose this funding, at least at first, unless they are able to send it to the worst fucking right wing sights imaginable as well as to regular news publications. Also, there is an ineradicable incentive for powerful people to want to suppress news that they don’t like, which means that there will always be some political pressure to zero out this money when some news story pisses off some politicians. (Do not be surprised when Democrats and Republicans attack the media with equal vigor because of this. Hating reporters is nonpartisan.) These barriers are real. But they are not unique to funding news—powerful interests have a constant incentive to attack many of our basic civil rights in order to gain an advantage for themselves at the public’s expense. And they do! What we need to do is to establish in the public mind that journalism is one of our civic institutions that is worth protecting.
This topic has a good deal of economic and political complexity, and could be (and is) the subject of many boring books. Today, I am just trying to make a singular, clarifying point: We need to build a large, continual public funding stream for journalism not because it is an easy task, but because it is the only way. Stop looking for magical alternative solutions. There aren’t any. The downward slope is clear. We will publicly fund news or it will keep on going away, and we will live to regret that, bitterly.
You may ask, “Who are we supposed to tax to get this money?” That is one question with an easy answer: Tax the fucking tech companies! It solves multiple problems at once. But we can talk more about that another day.
My book about the labor movement, “The Hammer,” comes out next week!!! I’m going on book tour and I would love for you to come on out to one of the events, which you see listed above (I’m still planning some more also). I will be joined by a number of very righteous labor people along the way. Hope to see you there.
A few days ago I wrote a piece about the need for illegal strikes, and mentioned the (illegally) striking teachers of Newton, Massachusetts. Well, they won their strike. (Illegal) strikes work.
Today’s post about the dying journalism world is also a good opportunity for me to reiterate that my ability to be a working writer who pays the bills rests in the hands of you, my attractive and intellectually astute readers. If you enjoy reading How Things Work, I invite you to become a paid subscriber. Paid subscribers enable this site to survive, and to remain free and open for all readers. It only takes a minute. Thank you to everyone who subscribes. Once you do it, you earn the right to say, “Well hell, I’m doing my part!”