Wither(ing) Journalism?

The journalism crisis continues. Yet, as so often happens when social problems require structural reform, once the alarm bells fell silent—as they did after the sudden 2008–2009 downturn—our sense of ...

The journalism crisis continues. Yet, as so often happens when social problems require structural reform, once the alarm bells fell silent—as they did after the sudden 2008–2009 downturn—our sense of urgency subsided. As with the broader financial system, whose collapse accelerated the fourth estate’s decline, the status quo has reasserted itself after being jolted. Previous warnings now seem hyperbolic and ideas for bold reforms have faded from view. Meanwhile, the number of newspaper journalists in the US has fallen by approximately a third since 2000, and continues to drop. All this transpires at a time of historic inequality and pending environmental collapse when a strong press is desperately needed to expose problems, their causes, and their solutions.

Simultaneously, there’s a growing exuberance around new digital experiments. Exhibit A for promising new models is The Intercept, launched by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. The Intercept is the first project of First Look Media, a 501(c)3 nonprofit funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who has promised to invest $250 million in the venture. Committed to editorial independence, First Look’s expanding network of digital magazines will provide “the kind of autonomy that is too often undermined by the demands of advertisers and investors.” Although it will aggressively seek out revenues to sustain its work, its not-for-profit model offers a structural alternative, one that privileges journalism over profit imperatives while focusing on hard-hitting investigative reporting. Other for-profit ventures—sometimes grouped together as “personal-brand journalism”—are Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight (owned by ESPN) and Ezra Klein’s Vox (owned by Vox Media). No doubt even more initiatives like these will emerge, promoting data-driven explanatory journalism. But even if we agree that these new experiments are most welcome, will they suffice? Can new digital start-ups fill the journalism vacuum?

Amid all this excitement (which I share), it’s still possible to feel a nagging sense of unease. The recent Pew report on the state of the news media suggests that while capital investment and philanthropy are growing, they account for a meager 1 percent of the current financial support for news. Likewise, digital ads and paywalls are not making up for legacy media’s previous losses. Many analysts are looking for positive signs within the expanding “digital native news” landscape, but the nearly five thousand digital start-up jobs added in recent years is an impressive-sounding yet still modest figure given the tens of thousands of lost newspaper jobs. And it is not at all clear that these experiments are sustainable for the long term.

This raises troubling questions. What happens when all that’s left are a handful of media billionaires and foundation-supported news institutions with varying (and not always benevolent) motives? What happens as local journalism becomes increasingly reliant on crowdsourcing and other forms of free or low-paid labor? What happens when, essentially, there’s no longer a press system? Is it symptomatic of our neoliberal age that we look to charitable and entrepreneurial individuals—and mostly to white men (see Emily Bell’s piece in the Guardian about the lack of diversity in these new ventures1)—to save journalism? Can we assume that technology and the market will prevail? Will some new profit-seeking model emerge triumphant, despite little evidence that any digital model has long-term commercial viability? Can legacy media institutions innovate themselves out of this crisis?

With regard to this last question in particular, empirical studies, exemplified by a cluster of recent notable books, do not offer many reasons for hope. The four books that I review below provide close and careful analyses of shifting journalistic practices, gaps between news coverage and public preferences, and blind spots within professional reporting. While noting innovations in news production, they present overall a sobering spectacle of journalism’s fight for survival and the implications for democracy.

Two of the four books are newsroom ethnographies. Paradoxically, just as journalism withers at the institutional level, a second golden age for media sociology is emerging. Not since the 1970s have we seen such close scholarly attention given to professional journalism’s routines and cultures. C. W. Anderson’s book Rebuilding the News (which I review in greater depth in Political Communication2) and David Ryfe’s dramatically titled Can Journalism Survive?, offer on-the-ground views of how newspapers continue to founder in the wake of technological disruption. (A third must-read ethnography, not reviewed here, but hot off the press, is Nikki Usher’s Making News at The New York Times, which provides an in-depth look at how America’s leading newspaper is adapting to the digital age.) More than just exercises in “salvage anthropology” in which researchers collect field notes on vanishing cultures before they completely disappear, these books draw attention to deeper questions about the existential crises facing legacy news institutions as they struggle to adapt to new digital economies and technologies.

With a narrative based on an ethnographic study of Philadelphia media institutions, Anderson’s captivating book provides a close chronicle of local news organizations’ decade-long losing battle to adapt to an increasingly online environment. Anderson captures this potentially transformative moment for journalism by focusing on a single media ecosystem that includes the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly.com, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Independent Media Center, Philly Future, and various local blogs. Rebuilding the News’ detailed description of journalistic work in the digital age belies its title. Rather than a semblance of “rebuilding,” Anderson’s account, which ultimately concludes that the dominant feature of contemporary news work in the digital age “is its increasing precariousness,” brings into focus the fragility of media institutions. The narrative that emerges from this analysis is not a comforting one; there’s little evidence that market-driven creative destruction and new technologies are forcing journalism to evolve. Anderson instead captures the numerous constraints that legacy news organizations face. Most importantly, he stresses the central role of institutions. Without institutional support, and without a close connection with their respective publics, new journalistic experiments cannot survive.

Ryfe’s finely written, well-organized, and thoughtful book similarly finds that news media institutions, specifically metro and midsize daily newspapers, have largely failed to sufficiently utilize new technologies. Consequently, Ryfe notes, “journalism will likely be greatly diminished in the next decade or two.” Based on an ethnographic analysis of three newsrooms (he worked as a reporter at one of them), Ryfe explores cultural questions about how journalistic norms and routines, as well as reporters’ sense of identity, are changing. Overall he finds that journalists’ commitment to legacy-media work patterns hinders their ability to adapt. Like Anderson, Ryfe finds this routinized newsroom culture impeding innovative newsgathering methods, particularly those involving digital media. He also notes that journalists’ sense of mission in serving democratic processes is being compromised.

One of Ryfe’s most interesting insights comes when he traces journalism’s shift from a virtuous to a vicious cycle.

While Anderson stays close to his ethnographic research, Ryfe extends his analysis to political economic issues like the pros and cons of specific business models and the challenges facing ad-revenue-dependent journalism. Drawing from a Bourdieu-inspired field theory that brings into focus journalism’s relationship to commercialism, politics, and other social contexts, Ryfe sheds light on the structural constraints within which journalists are forced to maneuver. He devotes the last several chapters to the loss of accountability journalism and worries about sustainability, concluding that “journalism is not dying; it is unraveling.”

One of Ryfe’s most interesting insights comes when he traces journalism’s shift from a virtuous to a vicious cycle. What Ryfe characterizes as a more or less harmonious connection between owners, journalists, and their publics within well-established cultural rhythms tipped toward a negative relationship, as news organizations, facing financial problems, were forced to cut jobs and degrade their product, which in turn led to a loss of public trust. This is a clever and useful way of looking at how American journalism lost its efficacy, though perhaps overly generous toward the legacy model, which always had systemic problems and critics.

Despite the turn to structural constraints in the final chapters of his book, Ryfe also ultimately relies primarily on a cultural analysis to describe the impediments that journalists face as they try to adapt to and take advantage of technological and economic changes. He devotes some discussion to what he sees as the next generation of news media: networked journalism. Seeing this shift bound up with larger changes in democratic practices and society writ large, he hopes that networked journalism will carry on the tradition of the now largely forgotten “public journalism” movement. This model would entail significant public participation, crowdsourcing, and collaboration with communities. “In networked journalism,” he writes, “journalists give up control to the crowd, and the crowd will go where the crowd wants to go.” Though he remains somewhat vague about how this shift would happen, Ryfe ends on a guarded but hopeful note. Observing that networked journalism is still in its infancy, he suggests that history indicates entrepreneurs will eventually arrive at successful and replicable experiments for a new kind of journalism.

Whereas Anderson and Ryfe focus on newsroom practices and culture, Pablo Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein’s important new book The News Gap focuses on the disconnect between news consumers and producers. The book’s style is lively and engaging and its data-driven analysis based on careful research. Using an innovative framework of qualitative and quantitative methods—including content analysis and ethnographic data—the authors assess the current news media landscape by examining the relationship between audiences’ and journalists’ news preferences in multinational settings. That they find gaps in preferences between news producers and consumers is not shocking, but the consistency their analysis reveals across ideological and geographic divisions is indeed interesting. The authors could have focused more on structural differences between some of the mainstream media organizations they examined (e.g., the Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust) since the consistency cuts against common assumptions about different media structures producing different content and maintaining different relationships with their publics. Their finding that people still gravitated toward straight news in some contexts is noteworthy and contradicts the notions that the public always has a predilection for fluff, or that new stylistic presentations are the panacea for attracting eyeballs to the kinds of news that journalists prefer.

Supply and demand in the unfettered free market don’t always reflect accurate assessments of social value.

Boczkowski and Mitchelstein present a refreshingly clear discussion about the relationship between news creators and audiences. They frame this gap as a problem with supply and demand, analogizing it to a bakery making the tough business decision between supplying healthy but expensive ingredients to its customers or offering inferior but less costly fare. This narrative is compelling in its brilliant simplicity, but also somewhat limiting. By framing their analysis based on market transactions, Boczkowski and Mitchelstein risk naturalizing a commercial system that treats media like any commodity and is determined by consumer behavior. Of course, this logic enjoys wide currency, but news media are also public or merit goods that shouldn’t be reduced to their commercial value. Returning to the bakery analogy, society could decide to subsidize healthier ingredients, thus changing the entire calculus. Otherwise, a potential takeaway message is that if people (or advertisers) do not pay enough for hard news to make it profitable, we should resign ourselves to its gradual decline. If we applied the same rigid supply/demand logic to public education, childless community members might not support local schools. In other words, supply and demand in the unfettered free market don’t always reflect accurate assessments of social value. Furthermore, the supply of commercial news is also affected by advertisers’ and investors’ interests, not just the public’s. As decreasing ad revenues reduce support for costly hard news (a problem the authors turn to in the final pages) and media institutions increasingly disinvest in newsgathering, the supply/demand question takes on a different kind of urgency. From this perspective, the problem is not one that can be addressed by simply changing journalistic practices.

Nonetheless, the bakery parable clarifies and humanizes the news gap Boczkowski and Mitchelstein address. They rightly note that news media’s worth has never been solely reduced to giving the audience what it wants (sports, entertainment, weather), but also about supplying society with what it needs to remain self-governing (information about mundane policy issues, the goings-on of the powerful, a wide range of diverse expression, and so forth). Throughout the book, and especially in the last chapter, the authors touch on some of the normative concerns about how this disconnect may undermine democratic processes. As a partial remedy they recommend a “flexible system of news production,” which responds to “periods of heightened activity” by tailoring “output to the behavior of consumers and to maintain their standing in the democratic process.” Such a flexible news-production system relies on a “monitorial citizenship” model, which assumes that the public pays closer attention to important social issues during extraordinary events. This assumption seems to conflate what is with what could and should be. While journalists understandably need to reach people where they are, a media system designed with this conception of citizenship might undervalue the potential positive externalities of a more consistent flow of hard news, amplified through social media, word of mouth, Daily Show satire, and the like. The monitorial citizenship model may set a high bar for what counts as newsworthy if limited to events that shake the populace from passivity. For example, detailed policy debates like those around Obamacare probably would not meet this threshold, yet ideally would receive close news coverage.

These considerations notwithstanding, Boczkowski and Mitchelstein should be applauded for their meticulous research. They engage with key normative issues stemming from the news-related problems that they examine, and they provide data where many only speculate. Their book is an invaluable contribution to ongoing scholarly and public debates about journalism’s future.

Thomas Patterson’s incisive Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism turns from journalistic practice to the problem of news content. Inspired by Walter Lippmann, whom he quotes at the beginning of each chapter, Patterson advances a normative argument that the press should serve a vital democratic role within a self-governing society. A longtime expert of press criticism—he authored the well-known book Out of Order—Patterson presents a scathing overview of how news media repeatedly and systematically fail to uphold their service to democracy. Synthesizing a wide range of scholarly and popular media criticism to sketch a dismal news landscape, he presents a damning portrait of a press driven by the wrong values.

To make this case, Patterson offers numerous examples of the press system’s deficits along with ample quotes from media critics. The shortcomings he points out include news media’s frequent decontextualization of important and complex policy issues and overemphasis on infotainment, soft news, and sensationalistic attack journalism. In particular, he argues that journalists too often rely on elite viewpoints. “The pillar of their profession—accuracy—is compromised by their dependence on high-ranking sources,” Patterson states. He also notes that “an irony of the press’s critical tendency is that it abets the right wing. Although conservatives claim the press has a liberal bias, its negative focus reinforces their antigovernment message.”

New technologies afford new capacities for implementing this new model.

Following this fusillade, Informing the News offers a potential remedy in what Patterson refers to as “knowledge-based journalism”—the kind of journalism that would “provide the steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news that Americans now lack, but sorely need.” If journalists drew from a deep knowledge base instead of relying on the sometimes dubious claims of official sources—an age-old problem within professional journalism—they would better serve the public. Patterson also advocates for a more niche-focused form of journalism rather than one that aims for mass appeal among large audiences. In his view, new technologies afford new capacities for implementing this new model. However, Informing the News is clear that this isn’t a job for amateurs; Patterson envisions journalism schools taking a leading role in advancing such innovations by training reporters to acquire more in-depth knowledge about the subjects they report on.

Patterson’s recommendations are admirable and reasonable. After all, given recent debacles, ranging from the fourth estate’s failure in covering the run-up to the Iraq war to its failure to report on the antecedents of the financial crisis, how could more knowledgeable reporting not be beneficial to society? However, this short book offers few guidelines for realistically actualizing such a model, a limitation that arises from Patterson’s focus on criticizing news content rather than offering structural criticism. He notes that “the problem with the traditional press is not its structure or its code, but its performance.” But without connecting these deficits to root problems—commercialization, advertising pressures, media concentration, loss of revenue, and so on—it is difficult to offer viable alternatives. For example, another excellent journalism-related study published recently, Rodney Benson’s Shaping Immigration News, shows us that different ownership and funding structures, such as those found in French news media, encourage a “debate ensemble” journalism that produces more multi-perspectival and contextualized news.3 While Patterson could have given such structural questions closer attention, Informing the News is nonetheless an enjoyable read and an important intervention; we can hope it will become a common reference point in the ongoing discussion about how to transform journalism into a more democratic force in society.

Each of these books gives us a snapshot of what ails the news industry. Together, they shed light on the broader question of the future of journalism. If there’s one overarching critique of these otherwise fine studies, it’s their overall lack of emphasis on the structural roots of the journalism crisis (with the partial exception of Ryfe, who does devote several chapters to fundamental political economic issues). Although each book in its own way advances nuanced explanations for the problem it addresses, at times they shade into a “blaming the victim” narrative, casting journalists as clueless Luddites responsible for their own failure to keep pace with their changing industry. There’s no question that publishers and editors deserve criticism for privileging profit over investment in news production and new technologies. But rank-and-file reporters have often been caught by shifts beyond their control. Furthermore, the jury is still out on whether any digital journalism, regardless of how tech-savvy it is, can be truly sustainable, let alone profitable.

No single book can capture all facets of the journalism crisis, but taken together, these books provide a multifaceted view of what is happening within the shifting and crumbling newspaper industry, with some implications for the social problems this creates, and some ideas about what is to be done to fix them. Studies like these are invaluable, especially given journalism’s uncertain future and the detrimental consequences its absence would have on our democratic culture. Yet several big-picture questions remain underexamined. What are the structural alternatives to the current model? What policies could help bring these alternatives into existence? Can the market support the kind of journalism our democracy requires? In the digital economy, can journalism survive without “dead tree” newspapers? And if so, what will this purely digital journalism look like? These books offer some hopeful glimmers here and there, but none are overly reassuring.

Hubris led to the dinosaurs’ downfall.

Journalism’s ongoing problems suggest a structural problem that requires public policy intervention. But thus far, the US has witnessed a remarkable policy failure in addressing any aspect of this crisis.4 Many factors enable this failure, including the terrific excitement about new digital practices that combines technological enthusiasm with a deep trust in the market. In addition, critics on the left and right often share a sense that legacy journalists are now getting their comeuppance after failing to embrace new technologies and taking for granted their monopoly status and cultural authority over captive audiences. Hubris led to the dinosaurs’ downfall.

Although there are certainly grains of truth to this narrative, beneath much of this discourse is a deeply conservative stance. There’s a tacit assumption that technological fixes, the charity of benevolent billionaires, and bold entrepreneurialism—with the market as final arbiter—will combine to support the journalism that democracy requires. Generally speaking, these are not systemic solutions. Such views too often treat journalism primarily as a business and dismiss society-level collective action such as policy interventions in the form of public subsidies. Much current commentary on the state of news media presupposes a commercial relationship within which news readers are seen as consumers, not as citizens of a polity.5 While it’s probably safe to assume that powerful interests are quite comfortable with this state of affairs, it is not ideal for a democratic society.

The implications of this systemic failure—for democracy, for historically underrepresented communities—are dire. But too often these broader normative concerns are given short shrift. Any democracy should recognize the importance of public-service journalism—a journalism that shares many of the admirable features embraced by experiments like the Intercept—that covers important policy issues at the local, state, national, and global levels. At the very least, media institutions should be accountable to the communities they purportedly serve. We have never had in the US a system that perfectly embodied these principles. But there have always been those who fought to make it so.

Indeed, our commercial media system has never lived up to democratic standards. It has always been fundamentally flawed, too often beholden to powerful interests, more an attack dog for the status quo than an adversarial voice against the powerful, more a conservative than a revolutionary—or even democratic—force in society. There’s no sense in simply propping up a failed legacy model. Yet nuance is required to acknowledge that some good journalism emerged from this system, and that it’s precisely this journalism that’s currently dying. The trick now is to extricate and nurture the good journalism we are losing, including local, international, and investigative reporting. What we need is a structurally diverse system—nonprofits, public media, small for-profit ventures—that rescues journalism’s public-service mission from the ravages of commercialism, and lets the other parts wither away. The books reviewed in this essay may not converge on a clear way forward, but they all offer important clues. Reading them, discussing them, critiquing them is an essential starting point for plotting a new path for journalism. icon

  1. Emily Bell, “Journalism Startups Aren’t a Revolution if They’re Filled With All These White Men,” Guardian, March 12, 2014
  2. Victor Pickard, “Review of C. W. Anderson’s Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” Political Communication, vol. 31, no. 1, 2014, pp. 187–189.
  3. Rodney Benson, Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  4. For a discussion of this failure and policy recommendations for supporting public service journalism, see Victor Pickard, America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
  5. Such thinking also often casts the journalism crisis as one arising from competition and changes in audience behavior instead of structural shifts like the loss of advertising revenue. Of course, loss of revenue is tied up with changing audience behavior (such as news consumers migrating to the internet), but the economics girding this relationship need to be further interrogated.