Another year, another depressing “State of the News Media” report from the Pew Research Center. This year’s version is almost all numbers, and pretty much all of them are bad. In the crucial category of newspapers, where the lion’s share of reliable reporting is done (before it’s cannibalized by other media), circulation is down around 3 percent from last year’s terrible figures. Ad revenue, down 4 percent, is now less than half what it was just 10 years ago. And if you think these losses can be made up by digital revenue, well, think again. The rise in (cheap) digital revenue doesn’t begin to cover the loss in (expensive) print revenue, especially as ad buyers are fleeing to more specialized social-media platforms.
For magazines, the numbers tell an even more depressing story. Overall circulation fell for the seventh year in a row, with newsstand sales plummeting by an incredible 14 percent. While readers may be multiplying on the web, they are not paying for the product or even clicking on many of the ads—at least not in numbers sufficient to stem the bleeding.
You can find glimmers of sunshine if you really look. Popular websites like Vice News and BuzzFeed are doing some good long-form investigative work, though both appear to have funny ideas about how to protect the integrity of their journalism from the profit motives of their owners. The Huffington Post and Politico also bury some solid work inside their miasma of side-boob shots (in the former case) and gossip-driven political trivia (in the latter case, but also sometimes in the former). But these are exceptions within exceptions.
The most important exception by far is The New York Times, whose impressive investigations—like those into the nail-salon industry and, even more consequently, the scandalous reality of Rikers Island—not only inform readers but also pressure policy-makers to remedy problems that would otherwise go ignored. (This happened in both of the above cases.)
What drives traffic on most “news” websites is not journalism but a combination of snark and celebrity clickbait. Much of it is churned out in soul-destroying content factories manned by inexperienced—and therefore inexpensive—young people without the time or incentive to dig deeply into anything.
The deficit is particularly acute where it matters most: in the kind of expensive, far-flung reporting that is either dangerous to the lives of those doing the work or harmful to the bottom lines of the publications paying for it. The idea that readers will pay the actual cost of meaningful journalism has never been sustainable in the United States and has brought down nearly every entity that has tried to depend on it—at least since the demise of Izzy Stone’s one-man operation.
Nothing can replace what is being lost. But if we want the kind of deeply researched, reliable journalism that keeps democracies functioning and prevents people from being tortured, killed, poisoned, and otherwise exploited without consequence, we are going to have to look to nontraditional sources of reporting.
Philanthropically supported organizations like ProPublica, which specializes in investigative journalism, and the Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal justice, do first-rate work. But it’s hard to know how sustainable they will be without their original donors. And given the congenital caution of most foundation-based funders, it’s not surprising that few, if any, have proved willing to step into the breach where the profit model has failed.