Thus far, 2024 has not been a banner year if you want to be employed as a journalist in the mainstream media. January featured layoffs at the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, Time, National Geographic, and Business Insider. Downsizing at cable news networks, usually unheard of in an election year, continues, and even National Public Radio has cut staff. Many longtime reporters at places such as the Washington Post have taken buyouts as the newspaper struggles to restructure its business model.
Jack Shafer of Politico captured the current mood well: “Journalists across the country burst into flames of panic this week, as bad news for the news business crested and erupted everywhere all at once.” Or, as Cameron Joseph put it in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) after several major publications announced layoffs in late January, “This week sucked.” Former Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi (who took a buyout after 35 years at the paper) was moved to ask in the Atlantic, “Is American Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’?”
The downward spiral is real. According to the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, “total newspaper employment has decreased by 70 percent in the past fifteen years.” Major newspapers have cut back or eliminated their bureaus in Washington, D.C., and an increasing number of communities have no local newspaper at all. Medill notes that 130 local papers shuttered last year alone. The cuts are not limited to old media; last year many digital media outlets suffered major cuts and several online publications such as BuzzFeed News closed their doors.
Many earnest essays have been written about the threat this situation supposedly poses to the health of our democracy. “This is corrosive to democracy in many ways,” Joseph argued in CJR. John Palfrey, president of the extremely liberal MacArthur Foundation, called the elimination of journalism jobs “a threat to our democracy.”
Journalists have identified a few villains in this drama. Writing in the Nation in December, New York socialist firebrand Zephyr Teachout blamed Big Tech. “A tiny group of tech companies may be the most dangerous threat to democracy in US history,” she wrote. “Google, TikTok, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and a few others have seized control of the country’s media infrastructure. And they have decimated the resources of news organizations while reaping profits from their work.” She’s not wrong: According to the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of American adults now get their news from Facebook, 16 percent from Facebook-owned Instagram, and 26 percent from YouTube. Others have indicted the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which bought up ailing publications like the Chicago Tribune and laid off staff.
One factor that journalists rarely mention as they wring their hands and invoke Armageddon is the very important role they themselves have played in their profession’s decline. Although they often write about it as if they are merely the helpless pawns of greedy tech companies and hedge-fund managers, journalists bear significant responsibility for the migration of readers from their publications to online alternatives and conservative media outlets.
Trust in media institutions has been declining steadily for nearly a decade, and not only among people who identify as conservative. A 2022 Pew study found that “adults under 30 are now almost as likely to trust information from social media sites as they are to trust information from national news outlets.” These are hardly cranky Fox News viewers; the younger generation skews left yet clearly isn’t buying what the mainstream media are selling. Why not?
When journalists attempt to answer this question, the answers can be hilariously un-self-aware. Consider Harvard’s Nieman Lab, which every year asks “some of the smartest people in journalism and media” for their predictions for journalism. Judging by many of the recent responses, journalists are more likely than not to hasten their profession’s demise with the incredibly vapid quality of their observations. Gina Chua of Semafor predicts that, amid the many domestic and global crises of our time, “2024 will see a continued wave of attacks on trans people, driven by politicians who believe they can weaponize our existence as a wedge issue to electoral success and victory in the ‘culture wars.’” She goes on to urge newsrooms to focus their energies on stories about pressing issues such as how companies “handle travel for trans employees who have to visit states with bathroom bans.”
NBC News’ Ben Collins says 2024 will be the year “it’s time to get real with people.” His scant but intrepid reporting has unearthed this important bit of fortune-cookie wisdom for his industry: People “want to know what’s actually happening, even if it’s a little complicated, even if there are no good guys,” which is interesting advice coming from a man who was literally suspended from reporting for NBC because of his unhinged rants on social media.
Janelle Salanga, a California-based reporter, is also certain that the way forward for journalism is through identity politics. To succeed, journalism must “recitf[y] the harm historically and presently caused to marginalized workers.” Salanga added that “diverse” journalists “are best positioned to critically cover the continued interlocking forces of oppression and harm, whether those be systemic racism, white supremacy, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, or U.S.-funded military campaigns.” Letrell Deshan Crittenden of the American Press Institute offers a more instrumental incentive for journalists to do what Salanga advises: “Make journalism awards contingent on the treatment of the marginalized,” he writes.
Others see 2024 as the year journalists embrace their “moral” obligation to defeat Trump, as though this wasn’t their belief before. “Journalists will find their voice—their moral voice—this time around to a much greater extent than before” regarding Trump, predicts University of Minnesota journalism professor Matt Carlson. “The moral voice requires journalists to stand up to abuses of power, to call out lies and racism, to protect norms of democracy and civil society, and to do so in solidarity with their audience.” Note how Carlson doesn’t even bother to pay lip service to the ideal of objectivity in reporting or exhibit any awareness that his “audience” might actually include Trump voters.
The pièce de résistance, however, comes from Washington Post columnist Philip Bump, who says that “journalism must learn how to defend itself.” From whom must our brave scribbling warriors defend themselves? From anyone who might criticize them. “The era of letting our work speak for itself is over,” Bump intones. “We need to stand up for our work and defend our work…. We cannot fight the battle for truth and for our own reputations through disappointed silence…. We need to actually fight, to engage lies about our work and to combat efforts to depict it as dishonest or biased.”
This is an interesting call to arms from a reporter who frequently criticizes Republican politicians on social media but only allows comments from “people @pbump follows or mentioned” on social-media platform X—and who stormed off a podcast in the fall because its host dared ask him about media coverage of Hunter Biden. Bump is the journalistic equivalent of a warmonger who behind the scenes seeks a draft deferment.
The only prediction that seems both likely and an improvement on the current state of mainstream journalism is communications professor Alvaro Liuzzi’s claim that “the future might involve a high degree of automation to achieve a more authentically human journalism.” Even traditionalists might find that a future in which “the algorithm will be the message” proves more reliable and less partisan than what is currently on offer from many of our mainstream media’s best and brightest.
For its 2024 preview, CJR consulted the oracle that is Taylor Lorenz, the Washington Post technology reporter best known for direct-messaging the troubled teenage children of Trump advisers to glean information about their social-media habits and political leanings. Lorenz’s advice? More of the same! “The more we engage our audience directly, and the more that we encourage people from our news organizations to have a two-way relationship with our audiences, the better for everyone. It helps with trust,” she claims. By the way, Lorenz’s posts on X are protected, so no one can engage with her without prior consent.
Oscar Wilde once observed that “the difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” In 2024, journalism appears well on its way to joining literature in its status as unread. The difference is that, unlike literature, the best of which still has something to teach us, journalism’s ignominy will have been well-earned.
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File
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