Bad News

Can Democracy Survive If the Media Fails?

On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News. Matthew Pressman. Harvard University Press, 2018. 336pp. Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now. Alan Rusbridger. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 464pp. Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. Jill Abramson. Simon & Schuster, 2019. 544pp.
 
In 2004—an ordinary, healthy year for the newspaper business—The Washington Post earned $143 million in profit. Five years later, in 2009, the paper lost $164 million amid a shift from paid print to free digital consumption, the erosion of its classified and local advertising businesses, and the global financial crisis. The collapse of its business model forced round after round of cutbacks, staff buyouts, and layoffs. That year, the Post shut all its domestic reporting bureaus outside the Washington area, including those in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
 
The Post’s position was typical of the country’s healthiest papers. That same year, The New York Times, facing possible bankruptcy, sold most of the new headquarters building into which it had just moved and arranged a $250 million high-interest loan from the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Around the country, more vulnerable papers closed down or put themselves up for sale. With few exceptions, the great family-owned franchises were being gobbled up by private equity firms with little sense of civic obligation and even less understanding of journalism. 
 
In the years since, the profession of journalism has contracted and grown ever more precarious. Between 2008 and 2017, employment among newspaper journalists fell by nearly half. In 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that the median annual income of newsroom employees with a college degree was around $51,000—about 14 percent less than the median for all other college-educated workers. Twenty years ago, public relations specialists outnumbered journalists by a ratio of less than two to one. Today, the ratio is more than six to one. According to Fortune, the only professions losing jobs more rapidly than newspaper reporter are letter carrier, farmer, and meter reader. 
 
Those who remain at media organizations feel themselves losing status and credibility. Last year, a Gallup–Knight Foundation survey found that 69 percent of Americans had lost trust in the news media over the previous decade. For Republicans, the figure was 94 percent. Journalists covering the big story in Washington recognize the importance of what they are doing. They are also under more or less constant assault from social media trolls, people who believe what they hear on Fox News, and the president of the United States. But I repeat myself. 
 
Following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a few news organizations with international reach—especially the Post and the Times—began exhibiting signs of a return to health. Outrageous abuse has provoked support. But local news seems unlikely to recover, and globally, there are few positive trends. In countries where a free press was just beginning to emerge, a cocktail of rising authoritarianism, audience cannibalization by social media, and financial weakness has thrown it into reverse. Independent journalism is viable in some places, but not overall. Everywhere, the same question about the future of news crops up: How can democratic societies get the journalism they need in order to function?
 
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
 
A good way to start answering that question is to look at the period when the U.S. media business was at its healthiest. In On Press, the journalism historian Matthew Pressman examines The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times between 1960 and 1980. During this seeming golden age, the leading news organizations adjusted their fundamental relationship to government, shifting from a kind of elevated stenography to the critical journalism that has become the norm. This was the era of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and All the President’s Men, when the image of the reporter as a truth-seeking hero took hold and investigative reporting units proliferated at local newspapers and TV stations all over the country. 
 

 
Pressman argues that American journalism reached this zenith in reaction to its fundamental failure during the Red Scare of the 1950s. During that time, conventions of objectivity led newspapers to amplify Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations and smears, lest they be seen as editorializing. The self-examination that followed McCarthy’s downfall—combined with the new competitive threat from television, the medium that had done the most to expose McCarthy—pushed newspapers away from just-the-facts recitations and toward providing more context, explanation, and interpretation. Still, well into the 1960s, Pressman shows, news coverage tended to be bland and deferential to government. It was the U.S. government’s lies about Vietnam, as well as personal opposition to the war on the part of many journalists, that bred the adversarial style of contemporary political journalism. As Pressman writes, Vietnam “established a baseline level of antagonism between the press and the government.” 
 
But journalistic distrust of authority boomeranged: the press soon found itself on the receiving end, losing the almost automatic trust it had enjoyed when its stance had been less challenging. The right criticized the mainstream press for adopting an oppositional relationship to established institutions. The left criticized the press because it had become an establishment institution. Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attack on the media’s left-wing bias presaged Trump’s. In terms that now seem rather mild, Agnew accused the press of departing from its obligation to simply report the facts and said that by doing so it was taking sides in political conflicts and exercising undue influence. Those who produced the nightly news that Americans relied on, Agnew charged in a speech in 1969, were “a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one” who “bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism.” 
 




White House correspondent Dan Rather of CBS News asking Pres. Richard M. Nixon a question at a press conference, June 29, 1972. (White House Photos)

EDITS AND ETHICS
 
In retrospect, the 1980s and 1990s were a kind of fool’s paradise for American journalism. As the elite press corps became more professionalized, some critics wondered whether reporters were growing too prosperous and comfortable. By the early years of this century, however, the job of leading a major newsroom was becoming obviously more difficult. It no longer just meant standing up to angry officials from time to time—now, all politicians were perpetually unhappy with their coverage. Running a media organization had devolved into a constant struggle on all fronts: to reinvent a failing business model and husband shrinking resources while mollifying an insecure staff in an atmosphere of intense public scrutiny. The old deference and respect gave way to second-guessing of every decision. At the same time, the rise of digital and social media meant that leading news organization no longer had the same gatekeeping power. There were no longer any gates. 
 

 
Two former newspaper editors, Alan Rusbridger and Jill Abramson, have written accounts of what it was like to run an important newspaper in this period of rising pressure and diminishing control. Their approaches accord with the predominant journalistic styles of their two countries. Rusbridger served as editor of the British newspaper The Guardian from just before the dawn of digital media until just before the era of Brexit and Trump, and he has produced a memoir that recounts the changes he experienced in personal, anecdotal terms. Abramson, by contrast, has written a heavily reported, journalistic narrative about a transformational period in media that happened to include her tenure as executive editor of The New York Times, which lasted from 2011 until her unceremonious firing in 2014. 
 
Rusbridger took the helm at The Guardian in 1995 and committed himself to embracing the Internet, even when it was less than clear what that would mean. Rather than focusing on the potential disruption to his business, he saw a journalistic opportunity. The Guardian, originally based in Manchester and barely in the top ten of British newspapers in terms of circulation, could now reach a global audience. Because it was effectively a nonprofit organization endowed by the deep-pocketed Scott Trust, it could invest heavily in audience growth and public-service journalism. This gave Rusbridger license to launch reportorial crusades on issues as varied as climate change and corporate tax dodgers. 
 
Not everyone in the British press had such a high-minded conception of their mission, and for decades, British news organizations had maintained something akin to a code of omerta around unethical reporting techniques. In 2009, The Guardian exposed the practice, common at newspapers published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, of hacking the voicemails of unsuspecting people and harvesting their contents for publication. By revealing it, Rusbridger effectively tendered his resignation from the Fleet Street club. In the years that followed, as Rusbridger published WikiLeaks’ revelations about U.S. foreign policy and, later, information provided to The Guardian by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Murdoch’s newspapers led the mob crying for censorship and punishment. 
 
In deciding to publish material from WikiLeaks, Rusbridger dealt with a set of issues no editor had ever confronted in quite the same way. WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, was no Daniel Ellsberg: Assange was a radical seeking to fundamentally transform society through transparency, whereas Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, was a member of the national security establishment—a hawk turned dove who had the more limited goal of hastening the end of the disastrous war in Vietnam. The potential harm contained in the raw files Assange had obtained went far beyond any imagined threat posed by the Pentagon Papers. “Once, to do journalism, all you needed was a knowledge of shorthand and to read a couple of books on law and local government,” Rusbridger writes. “Now the best journalists had to be moral philosophers and students of ethics.” He cannily shared his big Wiki­Leaks scoop with The New York Times, ordinarily a competitor, in order to gain First Amendment protections. The great virtue of his book is the way he describes trying to make difficult choices in stressful situations. His thoughtful handling of these episodes makes him, in retrospect, the most important editor of the era. 
 
As a business thinker, Rusbridger’s reputation is more questionable. His approach, much derided during his tenure, was to assume that since there wasn’t any clear way to make a newspaper at once journalistically robust and financially profitable, the paper would just have to live with large losses. But in retrospect, his view has arguably been vindicated. Today, The Guardian is one of the most important news organizations in the world, in a way it never could have been had Rusbridger not embraced the Internet as he did. It has a larger global audience than any British news source besides MailOnline, the website of the Daily Mail, a celebrity-focused tabloid that helped drive the campaign for Brexit. And under Rusbridger’s successor, Katharine Viner, the newspaper has pared costs and encouraged digital readers to make donations; in 2018, The Guardian had a marginally profitable year. It is one of the few high-quality news organizations that now appears to be sustainable. 
 
CHANGING TIMES
 
Compared with Rusbridger, Abramson gave herself a more difficult assignment in going beyond her own former organization to write more broadly about the changing news business. Her journalistic model is The Powers That Be, David Halberstam’s long-winded 1979 book about the rise of modern media, which revolved around the stories of CBS, Time Inc., The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Abramson picks four other organizations to tell the tale of the business’ decline: the Post again, plus The New York Times and two digital insurgents, BuzzFeed and Vice. She acknowledges her partiality when it comes to her own experience at the Times, an institution she revered so much that she had a T tattooed on her back in the paper’s iconic gothic-style font. She remains aggrieved, however, at what she sees as the unfairness of her firing over management missteps that she partly acknowledges and partly disputes. 
 

 
Abramson’s attempt to filter her own, still raw experience through the conventions of objective journalism gives her account a passive-aggressive quality, especially when it comes to her depictions of the former publisher of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and her successor as executive editor, Dean Baquet, whom she blames for engineering her downfall. But that part of the book is at least entertaining as media gossip. In contrast, Abramson herself seems bored by her own detailed chronicles of the other outlets, which might partly explain how she wound up plagiarizing a number of sources—an act she asserts was inadvertent and for which she has apologized—and making some sloppy factual errors that were discovered by readers and, in some cases, by the book’s subjects.
 
A greater fault with the book, however, is that Abramson never comes out and says one thing that she seems to think: that Vice is a poor excuse for a news organization, founded by greedy, dishonest people without the slightest comprehension of journalism. During the digital media bubble, Vice became the darling of middle-aged media executives, who invested in it based on the dubious thesis that foreign affairs could be made relevant to young people through video content that often focused on sex, drugs, and violence around the world. Vice has produced some worthwhile journalism, most of which resulted from a partnership with HBO that the cable network recently terminated. But in essence, Vice has been a swindle, and investors are starting to see the light: Disney, which sank $400 million into Vice in 2015, has in the past year written down nearly all of its investment.
 
Abramson implicitly lumps together Vice and BuzzFeed. Alongside its frivolous lists and personality quizzes, however, BuzzFeed has done a great deal of high-quality journalism. And it showed genuine courage in early 2017, when it published the so-called Steele dossier, a document full of troubling but unverified allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia, compiled by a former British intelligence official.
In supporting BuzzFeed’s still controversial decision to publish the dossier, Abramson parts company with many of her peers. But in other respects, she remains a media conservative. She believes there is a correct way to practice journalism: the way that The New York Times did it before the Internet came along and ruined everything. Arguably, this reverence for tradition is what made her tenure at the paper so difficult. Rusbridger was inspired by the new opportunities that the Internet brought to journalism, even when he didn’t fully understand them. Abramson focused on the risks and losses. She thought that software developers and data scientists were commercial infiltrators in the newsroom and grew increasingly frustrated over their incursions across the church-state boundary. When the company produced a self-critical “innovation report,” in 2014, Abramson took it as a personal rebuke. It sealed her fate in an unexpected way. In answer to the report’s implicit criticism of her, she tried to recruit Janine Gibson, an editor from the more tech-forward Guardian, as a deputy, without mentioning her plan to her existing deputy, Baquet. This provoked the showdown that led to her firing. 
 
A TOUGH BUSINESS
 
Given the continuing flux in media, editors are best advised not to get any employer’s logo tattooed on their bodies. BuzzFeed and Vice, which were both booming amid a digital news bubble when Abramson began writing her book several years ago, are now flagging. As Vice’s investors have sobered up, BuzzFeed has sought philanthropic investment and announced plans to cut 15 percent of its work force; meanwhile, one of the company’s founders and its CEO, Jonah Peretti, has proposed merging with a number of competing digital media outlets. 
 
The Post and the Times, both in decline a few years ago, have returned to health, if not the stable profitability of previous decades. In 2013, Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, purchased the Post, and in the years since, he has reversed the shrinkage of its journalistic footprint and now says that the paper is profitable again. The Times repaid Slim and has regained stability on the backs of more than four million subscribers. Several other leading legacy publications, including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones, appear to have moved from jeopardy to viability. Trump’s noxious verbal assaults on news organizations have had the perverse effect of making audiences more willing to pay for journalism, even as those comments have contributed to greater peril for journalists facing less constrained autocrats elsewhere. 
 
It’s far too soon to say that the economic crisis of journalism has passed, let alone the crisis of truth. There still exists no replicable business model that works for local news, which has diminished the accountability of state and metropolitan government. What do seem to be working are a variety of nonprofit and hybrid models that fill specific gaps in coverage, including ProPublica (investigative reporting), the Marshall Project (criminal justice), and The Texas Tribune (state government and politics). What the most innovative journalistic organizations seem to have in common is some form of subsidy combined with an ability to think like for-profit businesses even if they really are not. Every news organization must find its survivable niche, which is why the next generation of editors will have to be not only moral philosophers but also entrepreneurs.
 
JACOB WEISBERG is CEO of Pushkin Industries, which produces podcasts. He teaches a course on the ethics of journalism at Yale University and is former Editor of Slate.
 
This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.
 


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