Think the news industry was struggling already? The dawn of 2024 is offering few good tidings


NEW YORK — On Friday, the National Press Club is offering solace — and a free meal — by giving recently laid-off journalists tacos in recognition of a brutal stretch that seems to offer bad news daily for an already struggling industry.

For anyone who works in the news media, the list is intimidating — and unremitting.

The news website The Messenger folded on Wednesday after being in operation since only last May, abruptly putting some 300 journalists out of work. The Los Angeles Times laid off more than 100 journalists in recent weeks, Business Insider and Time magazine announced staff cuts, Sports Illustrated is struggling to survive, the Washington Post is completing buyouts to more than 200 staffers. The Post reported Thursday that The Wall Street Journal was laying off roughly 20 people in its Washington bureau; there was no immediate comment from a Journal representative. Pitchfork announced it was no longer a freestanding music site, after digital publications BuzzFeed News and Jezebel disappeared last year.

And journalists at the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, New York Daily News and the Conde Nast magazine company have all conducted walkouts to protest how management was dealing with business problems.

Seeing all the damage is what led to the Washington-based National Press Club to open its weekly Taco Night to laid-off colleagues and offer a one-month free membership to people who need a networking opportunity.

“It’s very important when people have lost their jobs to know that they have some support behind them,” said Didier Saugy, the club’s executive director.

The news business has been in a free fall for the past two decades, starting when much of its advertising moved online to opportunistic tech companies. Advertising is still a huge part of the problem, although there are more complex reasons and circumstances unique to individual outlets that also play a part.

The situation is dire at larger, more national organizations and in smaller communities. A Northwestern University study released in November estimated the United States has lost one-third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its newspaper journalism jobs since 2005.

The nation loses 2.5 newspapers per week — a pace that is accelerating, the study found. Through the end of November, the employment firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimated 2,681 journalism jobs were lost in 2023, and that tally has increased by hundreds since.

One industry observer, Jeff Jarvis, wondered on his Buzzmachine website this week: “Is it time to give up on old news?”

“There’s an inevitability to what is happening,” Jarvis, author of “The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and its Lessons for the Age of the Internet,” said in an interview. “Publications have been trying to preserve their old ways and their old models, and it is time for them to realize that it’s not working and now it’s too late.”

While there have been some successes in news outlets shifting their business to paid digital subscriptions — most spectacularly at The New York Times — failures are much more numerous. Even The Washington Post, whose subscriptions boomed during the Trump administration, has seen a falloff, leading its management to acknowledge that it was too optimistic in expansion plans and needed to cut costs.

Optimism created by billionaire owners at the Post, with Jeff Bezos, and Los Angeles Times, with Patrick Soon-Shiong, has faded as it became apparent they didn’t have magic fixes. With COVID and the Hollywood strike constricting the advertising market, the Los Angeles Times estimated it was losing between $30 million and $40 million a year.

Philanthropy has offered a boost to some news organizations, including The Associated Press. The MacArthur Foundation and Knight Foundation last year pledged $500 million to seed solutions in the news industry, but such efforts can’t match the scale of the problem, Jarvis said.

“The industry,” he said, “leaps from false messiah to false messiah.”

Tech companies are also backing away from news, said Aileen Gallagher, a Syracuse University journalism professor. Through its AI-powered search generative experience, Google is much less frequently directing users to individual news sites, she said.

Publishers have also complained of losing significant business with Facebook much less frequently featuring news articles that bring people to news sites. Twitter, now X, was once like a second home to journalists, but that’s become much less the case since Elon Musk’s purchase of the site.

“What the news companies may have finally woken up to is that nothing good will come from accepting the scraps that social platforms and search platforms will give the news business,” Gallagher said.

The 2020 election proved a boon for many news outlets, but there are questions about whether the public will have as much interest in following political news this year.

Some of the troubled outlets also have unique issues that contributed to their problems. Sports Illustrated sent layoff notices to employees after the company that publishes its content lost its license to do so. The Messenger’s failure angered observers because its business plan — a centrist website that tried to appeal to many instead of a tightly-defined audience — was an uphill battle to start.

“It was business malpractice and human cruelty at an epic scale,” Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Axios and Politico, told the Puck newsletter. “Anyone who knew anything about the economics of media knew it would die quickly, spectacularly and sadly.”

That sadness is apparent in messages left on social media by laid-off journalists from The Messenger and elsewhere.

“I was laid off from my political writing job back in August and haven’t been able to find another one since,” wrote Tara Dublin, author of “The Sound of Settling: A Rock and Roll Love Story,” on X. “I am terrified about the future of journalism and how anyone is going to be able to trust any news source.”

Steve Reilly, an investigative reporter at The Messenger who saw his job disappear this week, wrote: “If you’ve been affected by recent journalism layoffs at the Messenger or elsewhere, please know that it is not your fault. It has nothing to do with you or your work.”

Jarvis, who also teaches journalism, said he doesn’t pretend to know the answers. He said there needs to be an attitude change from searching for a way to monetize content to seeing journalism as a service to the community.

“We need journalists in society, and we will find a way to fill that need,” he said. “I’m optimistic in the long run. But in the short run, it’s going to be ugly.”

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David Bauder covers media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder





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