PSA: The mainstream media is not dying just because you don't like it
The Line explains why every journalist is getting laid off, and why it's not because they cut your favourite theatre critic or pay a columnist too much.
"No one wants to read your partisan trash." "I stopped watching years ago." "Podcasts killed radio." "There's too much opinion, not enough real news." "Why pay when I can get this all for free?" "The hedge funds have ruined media." "If the execs stopped taking bonuses, it would be better."
If you work in the media, you hear statements like this all the time whenever there is bad news — and there is always bad news in media. In Canada, Bell Media just laid off hundreds of journalists and shuttered whole newsrooms. In the U.S., a group of distressed newspapers were just purchased by a hedge fund, to the despair of its employees who know full well what that will mean. (See: Postmedia.)
The Toronto Star has made a habit of throwing funds toward big initiatives like tablet editions or national bureaus — only to shutter them in the face of cash woes. That storied brand was recently sold for less money than it had cash in the bank. Australia's news industry is trying to keep itself alive by lobbying the government to shimmy bucks from Facebook and Google, and as we recapped here on Friday. No matter how you cut it, the media is collapsing everywhere in the Western world. Newspapers and magazines, TV stations and radio, even the new media digital outlets that were supposed to be our salvation ... all are struggling.
But they aren't struggling for the reasons you think.
Media is polarizing. Columnists are combatants in the culture wars. News reporters are cherished professionals when their reporting aligns with your worldview — and partisan hacks running off yellow tabloid trash when they challenge it. It is very natural for each of us to assume that when journalism is struggling, it's struggling because the journalism is bad. And maybe it is bad! But that's not why journalism is dying. Journalists understand this. The broader public doesn't.
So consider this a public-service announcement: media is not struggling for any reasons that affirm your preconceived notions about the nature of media. This is aimed at a general audience, and may seem obvious for those who are either journalism pros or passionate news junkies. But trust us — much of the public does not know this. It should.
We touched on the key issue in our Friday dispatch. Journalism has traditionally been free to the public, or nearly so. When you listen to a news update on the radio, you aren't charged for it. As long as you have purchased the physical radio, you get the news.
Local news channels are usually part of even basic TV packages, so if you have a TV and a cable or satellite package, watching the news doesn't cost you anything. Until recently, newspapers and magazines would post their content online for free. The print versions cost a coin or two to buy, yes, but when you purchase a physical paper, you aren't paying for the journalism within it, you're paying for the printing and distribution of the physical product. Your newspaper subscription covers the delivery boy's salary, not the reporter's.
The cost of the journalism — the reporting, the columns, the photography and art, the graphics and charts, the news studios and broadcasting equipment, and all the support staff, from senior editors right down to the guys answering the phones and toiling in the mailroom — used to be covered by advertising revenue.
We at The Line have a fascination with advertising. We've read whole histories of it. Mad Men put some of all this into the public eye in recent years, but the industry is much older. Almost since the dawn of the printing press, newspapers captured truly mass audiences for the first time in human history anywhere outside a colosseum. They were followed by radio and television stations. As each of those technologies become more affordable, outlets proliferated. Until recently, almost every small town had at least one local newspaper. Many smaller cities could still manage radio and TV news operations. The advertisers craved access to the mass audiences only the media could reach. When mass media was the only game in town, they set the advertising rates as they pleased. For almost a century, owning a newspaper was more than just a way to dominate public opinion — it was a practically a license to print money. The 20th century was, therefore, a golden age for journalism.
And then it ended. The advertising revenue that news organizations had come to depend on began to dry up in the ‘90s, and it only got worse as time passed. This was not because readership or ratings were dropping — that's the first myth that needs to be murdered, viciously, outright. Mass media audiences today are vastly larger than they ever were in the halcyon days of easy revenue. No, what changed is that the advertising market became more competitive. New digital options provided better value for dollar; cheap digital ads could be better targeted to specific audiences, and better tracked for their effectiveness. Advertising spends ballooned enormously over the past generation, but legacy media outlets have been claiming a smaller share of the pie.
A 2020 report by News Media Canada found that advertising revenues at daily Canadian papers had fallen off a cliff since 2009. In that year, daily Canadian papers sold $2.2 billion in advertising. By 2018, it was under $950 million. The numbers for TV and radio aren't quite as stark, but are flat, at best, or in decline. And again, this is while more money than ever is being spent on advertising. It's just being spent somewhere else.
The first casualties were newspaper classified pages. Newspapers used to sell page after page of space directly to the public, so it could buy or sell items or services. Even personal connections, dating profiles, and their more illicit counterparts, used to be the newspaper’s domain.
These ads were pure profit for the newspapers, which only had to invest enough staff to collect the ads and slap them on the page. Obituaries, wedding and birth announcements, corporate statements, they all had to be published somewhere. And this was basically free money for the papers. The internet offered better, cheaper and more flexible options, and this once-major source of revenue has collapsed.
The next problem was one of scale. Within a few years the media monopolies began to be outclassed by search engines and social media websites. Even the most popular news website simply cannot match the the number of eyeballs that glom onto Google or Facebook in a day. Further, these technological marvels have spent years collecting detailed demographic data that allows them to target their advertising to precise audiences. Don't believe us? Go Google a bunch of questions about cat food, or maternity closes, or motor oil for your lawn mower. Put about 10 or 12 random searches through. And then watch as every website you visit for weeks fills up with ad spots for pet products, stretchy pants and synthetic lubricants.
As the revenues have cratered, news organizations have tried to find new sources of revenue, and have occasionally succeeded, but not enough to offset these enormous losses. The result, inevitably, has been cutbacks. Enormous cutbacks. Anything defined as a frill or luxury is gone. Even most dedicated beat journalists are gone, replaced by either a group of general assignment reporters, or columnists.
Many of the gripes about journalism are true. There is less in-depth reporting. There are more columnists than reporters. The offerings are not as well edited. There are more errors and typos. But this is a symptom of the problem, not what's causing the problem. It's not helping with audience retention, that's for sure. But most of the things that piss you off about the modern media are a consequence of this revenue Armageddon, not the cause of it.
The ad dollars fled, and the newsrooms shrank. They became less comprehensive, less interesting places. They came to rely more on wire copy — mass stories produced for sale by agencies like the Canadian Press or Reuters. They began to rely more on columnists more: six columnists writing once a week each for $200 a pop is less than what it costs to pay one reporter $60,000 a year. And their pieces are generally more likely to be read. (We at The Line are guilty of this as well. We run this Substack off the side of our desks and can’t afford to hire a reporter, nor devote the time required for in depth journalism here as of yet. We hope that we will be able to do so in time, but it takes more money than we have right now.)
On TV and the radio, panel chats replaced reported news — it's a lot cheaper to pay a good talker to gab about the news than it is to pay a reporter to actually break it. This decline in quality is accelerating the media's decline, but not causing it.
Most newspapers operating today won't survive the decade. TV news is following, especially as more consumers switch to streaming services. Radio stations were relatively robust and stable until fairly recently. Advertisers went away when the first wave of COVID-19 hit and they haven’t fully returned.
Until recently, there was some hope that digital news organizations would replace the legacy outlets. A Pew report published in 2020 found that U.S. digital news organizations added ten thousand jobs between 2008 and 2019. But during that same period, newspapers shed approximately 35,000 jobs, for a net loss of 25,000. There have been some successes in the digital realm, but they’re no panacea. BuzzFeed is laying off reporters. Vice Media is laying off staff. Ditto Vox. And so on.
The answer is fantastically complicated in all the micro-examples, but easy to understand in the big picture. The advertiser-funded model of journalism is broken and dying faster thanks to the pandemic — figures from the U.S. showed an eye-watering number of layoffs during the first half of last year alone, and the economic fallout will linger for years. The job is as essential as ever, but it needs money — money for journalists and money for those who support journalists.
Our guess at The Line is that we'll see some half-hearted state support lock in our vastly reduced media at a size too small and meagre to be effective. So it'll be up to new outlets, like The Line, to find funding models to survive. Charitable foundation status and donations is one option. Public subsidy another. Or they can try what we're trying here: direct support from subscribers.
But before you try to fix the problem, you have to separate the illness from the symptoms. Exec compensation, too much opinion and not enough news, panel discussions ad nauseum, sloppy copy, overreliance on cheap wire stories ... these are all problems, but they're not the disease. They're just what's making the death of the terminal issue, the ad exodus, so sloppy and undignified.
We at The Line know you have questions. Please send them by email, with the subject line Media Questions, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll answer as many as we can next week.
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