For the past week, I’ve been interviewing as many reporters as I can on what’s happening in newsrooms. I am not a journalist; I work in media relations, and began to hunt for some context to fill in what I’ve been sensing for several weeks. Here’s what I learned.
1) “It’s fucking nuts.” Reporters are doing double and triple duty right now, ingesting all of the data in order to put it back out into the world. Each breaking news update triggers the need to update stories in order to keep communities safe and informed. They’re feeling a sense of obligation – with good reason. I’ve heard a lot of “I am hoping to come up for air,” and “It can feel a little never ending”-type language. If you’re not told this enough, your communities need you and are grateful. And as nuts as it is in this current moment, it’s only a small piece of what’s actually going on.
2) The state of the media industry is more ambiguous than the state of our country. It’s beyond layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, which have been significant (as I wrote this Vice announced laying off 155, Conde Nast 100, and Quartz 80, among numerous others, including cuts, closures & consolidations at the local level).It’s the state of the industry.
Employment at U.S. newspapers have been cut in half since 2008 (meaning reporters, editors, and photo/videographers), and newsrooms overall have declined by 23% (newspaper, radio, broadcast TV, cable and digital news publishers) according to new Pew Research Center data analysis. This, paired with tanking ad sales and a general lack of funding makes the situation feel a little hopeless. The time for creative solutions to drive new revenue streams in the media industry is now. More on this later.
3) An enormous amount of work was immediately lost. While we may think of news as short-lead reporting (quick turnaround times), a lot is planned in advance. Anything that was in the works has quickly become irrelevant or pushed aside. Stories written at 9 a.m. may very well be irrelevant by 1 p.m. This is a loss both of content and a hit emotionally, and can be an exhausting cycle. Other work will be colored by all the changes.
4) They can’t even get their own editors’ attention. Reporters are producing some of the most intense and important stories of the decade and potentially their careers. And yet because our time is so fragmented, it is challenging to even get to publication. And I’m talking virus and non-virus coverage, which are both important at this moment in time, as page views are showing that readers want both right now as fatigue from pandemic coverage is setting in.
“Almost all big writing projects evaporated. For some outlets, stories were paused. For others, my pay dropped 25% overnight.”
5) Freelance writers are SOL. “Almost all big writing projects evaporated. For some outlets, stories were paused. For others, my pay dropped 25% overnight,” shared one of the more accomplished and respected freelancers I’ve met, Joshua M. Bernstein who writes regular beer content for the New York Times, Food & Wine, Saveur, Men’s Journal and Imbibe. Editors who manage these oftentimes ongoing relationships are having to deliver the news that their freelance colleagues won’t be getting that income. Bernstein shared that for one outlet, a story that is submitted runs 8 weeks later, and the outlet has 90 days from publication to pay. “I made more years ago at a dollar per word,” he said, as he’d rake in $3000 for a 2-page spread. Now, the opportunities out there are $200 a pop, and if you’re not in your 20s/30s, it may not be worth the time. Layoffs have not resulted in more freelance work.
6) Reporters of all kinds are true community servants right now. Survive at home, keep people alive with information at work, it is quite the dance that no one should have to go through. Additionally, it may be the biggest story of their lifetime. Many reporters find themselves covering complex medical topics for the first time, as beat writing dissipates. And while the bones of reporting may be the same for all beats, the way they’re handled can be totally different, and covering a novel virus with no historic data has its own set of challenges. This is less relevant to my story, but the Association of Healthcare Journalists made a 6-month membership for non-health journalists to access resources to support their reporting. I think it’s $30.
Oh, and not only are reporters covering the critical news we need – but they saw last month when we were searching for quarantine games and how to get booze delivered; last week when we put on a virtual dance party; and this week’s searches for beautiful places to drive, and are delivering that content. As I sip my beer, we praise you.
7) Our country’s hunger for news & information is not going away, and we need to get comfortable paying for it. (“Paywalls” need a PR campaign rn.)
The way journalism used to work was that the longer you did it, the more you got paid. Outside of some talent at the very top, it’s not the case anymore. The media is sorely undervalued at this moment in time, and paychecks reflect the serious lack of funding. There’s no reason that a daily newspaper costs a few quarters, and a monthly magazine subscription is $8. That is a reflection of the ad-sustained model where more clicks and more readers = more advertisers.
But the bigger issue remains: what can sustainably fund society’s endless hunger and need for news media?
Ad revenues have tanked during the pandemic, but they were tanking anyways. Our disinterest in supporting these publications has continued. Some outlets have begun using affiliate links, and doing creative integrations with social and email, which sounds like it has been mildly successful at adding top line revenue. But the bigger issue remains: what can sustainably fund society’s endless hunger and need for news media?
8) The conversation is heating up. In my local market right now, The Baltimore Sun is pushing for local nonprofit ownership, which feels logical. On a bigger scale, there’s active dialog among experts (I’ve been following this round table on Columbia Journalism Review’s Galley forum) following a recent New York Times column by Ben Smith about pressuring big tech platforms like Google and Facebook to pay media publishers to use their content, which some foreign governments are requiring. The rationale is that ‘big tech’ profits enormously off of news content, and additionally, has attracted a majority of ad dollars away from news, arguably leading to their slow demise. I don’t think this is a sustainable or desirable direction, though I’m interested to follow the story.
We have seen Facebook and Google each pledge $300 million to help local media figure out a sustainable business model, though what I’ve seen reported has me wondering if this is an intentional effort with specific end goals, or if they’re supporting short-term fixes, keeping them afloat and delivering content until a better business model is found independent of big tech.
9) Some sustainable models are out there. The Athletic created an ad-free, subscription-based model four years ago that seems hopeful: hiring (swiping) top sports talent locally, paying them well to report in a way that reaches local and non-local fans, and sustaining on subscriptions. It seems to be working (profitable).
Apparently, Apple News+ launched its own news subscription service last year for $9.99/mo., which gives access to hundreds of top newspapers and magazines. I had not heard of this service (which seems like a target market miss), but The Verge wrote a review that basically says for magazines, it’s incredibly comprehensive; and the news portion is less robust, with WSJ and LA Times available in full, but with a poor user experience.
I am super interested in this subject and have an unvetted idea for a solution that I would love to bounce off people if anyone wants to discuss.
10) There will be an industry talent exodus and it’s emotional. Due to some combination of burnout for those who are working during the pandemic and general grind to get to the middle, the confidence blow from furloughs/layoffs, and the wholly inadequate pay or benefits, reporters are looking at jobs outside of news. They are having a lot of feelings about it, including those of “selling out.” Be kind. Here’s a Twitter thread started by @LindsayGoldwert that hooked me in on the subject.
11) There are some positives. This is a story of a lifetime. Sources are more available than ever. There are no rules; boundaries are disappearing as teams pivot to all hands on deck. And, most importantly, as when something life shattering happens like war, elections, terrorism, or a pandemic, it tends to inspire young people to get involved, and sometimes that is through journalism. We can expect to see a new generation come online as a result.
It does appear that work is being done to better understand the crisis in the media industry right now, though it’s early. The International Center for Journalists and Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism are collaborating on a global research study, Journalism and the Pandemic, to better understand the effects of the virus on journalism. They recently launched a reporter survey to support initial research:
Reporters only: Please take this survey intended to track and assess the impact of the pandemic on journalism, and help to re-imagine its future.
This topic is very new, and very important. As someone who works not in the media but with the media professionally and respects it very much, I am interested in what I don’t know right now. Please comment with new articles or points of view that I had not considered. Additionally, if you feel that you have something meaningful to contribute, let me know that as well. If you’d like to continue the conversation, please feel free to connect.
Not many follow the pace of minority media but with all the business closings during COVID-19 a vast number of publishers like myself had to use our personal savings to carry the burden. In addition, to having to utilizes freelance support was in fact the hardest thing we’ve had to do at Exposure Magazine.