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The Utopian Future Scenario of Media
Things are bad. But there's a legitimate path to salvation.
“Creative destruction” was the term that Joseph Schumpeter coined to describe capitalism’s ceaseless method of cutthroat progress, in which companies rise and then crumble to dust as they are replaced by newer, more advanced successors. Like all kinds of destruction, it is much more fun to witness as a destroyer than a destroyee. A certain sort of intellectual takes glee in this type of pitiless theory: Progress demands pain! Efficiency demands sacrifice! Nature demands war! These sentiments are always proclaimed by people who are seated safely away from the path of the destruction in question.
As a descriptor, creative destruction is undoubtedly true. It happens. Automobiles replace the horses and buggies. Facebook replaces MySpace. Diet Coke replaces Tab. As an ethic, though, it leaves something to be desired. To shrug and accept that building enormous, intricate operations and then shoving them off a cliff as public preference marches on is the only way things can be possibly be is kind of like saying that we don’t need to do anything about pandemics because they will inevitably burn themselves out after they have infected everyone. Hey, sure, but there’s all those dead bodies. Maybe we can manage this whole process a little bit better.
Every industry is important in its own way. Otherwise it would not exist. A lot of industries are important in boring ways, though, and I don’t plan to write about them here. One industry that is important in a more interesting way is media—where journalism lives and dies. The average person may find it hard to muster much excitement about the ins and outs of the ball bearing manufacturing industry despite its many unseen uses in their daily lives. But media, we all experience to varying degrees. Most people experience it directly, as consumers of “news” in all its grotesque forms, and everyone experiences it indirectly by living in a nation in which our ability to prevent our government and businesses from descending into utter corruption is based upon our ability to have a swarm of reporters poking and prying and publishing things about them at all times. Kind of a weird system! Can you spot the flaw in this civic design? That’s right: Media is a business like all other businesses under capitalism and consequently blows up its existing institutions regularly, but at the same time, a good deal of the health of our democracy rests upon the media providing a constant blanket of journalism at local and state and national levels. Unlike the ball bearing industry, “creative destruction” in the media industry always has the potential to fuck up the civic health of our society. And right now, it is.
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Here is a very brief summary of the past several decades of journalism as a business: Newspapers and magazines were strong for a long time, the internet rose up and decimated them, then online media rose up for a while, now online media itself is crumbling to pieces after a scant decade or so. Print media was a great business before the internet—every newspaper was a local advertising powerhouse, and threw off enough money to have lots of reporters covering news in each city. Tech platforms like Google and Facebook, however, figured out how to insert themselves as middlemen and suck all the ad revenue out of the media like a straw in a Slushee. It turns out that that fact kills not just print media, but—as thousands of layoffs in the past year or so attest—online media companies as well. Other than a tiny handful of national outlets, nobody can really make enough ad money to support robust newsrooms any more. Dang!
So what comes next? “Fuck do I care?” you, a non-media person, might say. Sure, fine, but let me assure you that there is just a disgusting, mind-blowing amount of corruption and shady dealings going on in local governments and statehouses and local and regional businesses and other institutions right now, because there are no reporters there watching. I guarantee you that wherever you live, someone is robbing the public blind. Journalists, for all their (many) flaws, are the police of the public square, and they’ve all been forcibly retired at once. Newspaper employment is down by more than half since 2004, and that understates the problem. During the same period, the number of journalists per capita has fallen by 62%, while spending by state and local governments has risen by more than 75%. In the small Florida town where I grew up, there was a local newspaper, and then a bigger newspaper in nearby Jacksonville, and also an alt-weekly. I worked for the alt-weekly, and there were so many scandals. Corrupt local officials! Police misconduct! Shady development deals! A profusion. This is true everywhere. We could only scratch the surface back then. Today, all of those publications have lost tons of money and the majority of their reporters. Yet all the scandals, I promise, are still going on. You just don’t get to hear about them. It’s bad.
The point is, everyone has an interest in the question of what the next evolution of journalism is gonna be. And it’s your lucky day: I have a theory. Let me say up front that this theory is probably too optimistic. But it is a plausible theory, and I will bet that it will come true, although what scale it will come true on, I cannot say.
All the newspaper reporters got laid off and the local reporters got laid off and the online media company reporters are getting laid off. It’s nearly impossible to support a newsroom with ad revenue any more. A lot of those reporters will just go and get real jobs, and god bless them. Another slice of us, though—the masochists—will filter into places like Substack and its clones, where you can support one writer at a time with subscription revenue. Another slice will join new local or national newsrooms that support themselves with subscription revenue, along with nonprofit grants.
One thing the internet did was to teach the general public that “news is free.” That turns out to be false. It only works when there’s enough ad money coming in to make the news free, and the same tech platforms that told everyone that news is free also took all the ad money out of news. Shoot. Now, we are in a slow, unfolding national process of teaching the general public once again that you need to pay for news. Written journalism is, by necessity, moving towards a model based on subscription revenue. All these little reader-supported writers and publications are like green shoots rising up from the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the dying media landscape.
Here is a fun scenario for what could happen next: We reach a critical mass of independent, reader-supported journalism, peppered across the nation. A bunch of those writers look around and say, “Hey, you know what we should do? Get together and make a publication.” (This is not a new idea—ever since newly unemployed writers began migrating to Substack, they have dreamt of re-forming newsrooms.) Crucially, these groups of writers would already each have their own subscriber base, meaning that these new publications should, in theory, be financially viable from day one.
And the most interesting part of this scenario—the reason it’s been kicking around my mind in the first place—is the fact that all of these new publications would be worker-owned coops. Why wouldn’t they be? Rather than investors putting up a pot of money to hire journalists, you have a big pool of independent writers who already have their own subscriber bases mutually agreeing to combine forces. In this scenario, there is no for investors—just subscribers. Each of these new publications will have cut the investor class out of the fold. Each publication like this that pops up will be an extra bit of proof that the model works. Writers always dream about working for media coops, but the high barrier to building one stops most of them from happening. Not many reporters are willing to take the risk of quitting their jobs and trying to raise enough startup money and hoping they can attract enough subscribers to make it worthwhile. But now, we already have a large pool of (quasi) unemployed reporters operating independently who have their own set of subscribers in hand. The on-ramp to building media coops then becomes a very gentle slope. The silver lining of the media’s most recent bout of creative destruction is that it’s laying the groundwork for a big flourishing of the most socially beneficial type of publications of all.
This is not just a media story. It’s a labor story. Thousands of us have spent the past seven or eight years unionizing the media industry. Unions are great and necessary, but they can’t prevent the enormous technological and economic fluctuations that end up destroying the places where we all worked. Worker-owned coops are the next and final evolution of media unions. Instead of negotiating with the owners, the workers are the owners. I can also guarantee that these publications would suck less, because we could all write what we wanted. (Defector Media is the best existing example of this. And it is good.) A whole nation full of reader-supported, worker-owned publications would be infinitely better for our social fabric than the corporate, investor-owned media companies we have today.
I am not Pollyanna enough to believe that this utopia will happen at a scale large enough to replace all the journalism that we’ve lost in the past 20 years. No chance. But it could, legitimately, get us part of the way there. And an industry in which worker-owned coops proved themselves to be viable competitors would be an example to other industries, as well. It would spread. Socialism in the newsroom. Socialism in the businesses. Socialism in the country. And journalism for all. It could happen. Don’t cancel those subscriptions, my friends. This is the path to salvation.
How do you help usher in this new utopian age of media? By becoming a paid subscriber to the Substack you are reading, thereby proving that reader-supported journalism is viable, and allowing me to buy food and shelter. Every subscription to How Things Work is a step on the path to a friendlier America.
Defector really is good and it is also the main place that I write about boxing. But if you subscribe there please attach a note telling them that none of your money is to be used to support the nefarious activities of the villain Patrick Redford.
And shout out to the Pittsburgh Union Progress, an incredible publication that the striking workers of the Pittsburgh newspaper have been producing for months. Imagine if they owned the damn paper. They wouldn’t have to be on strike. Nice!