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Journalism is doing just fine, thanks — it’s mass-media business models that are ailing

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Is the internet destroying journalism? In a piece at Salon, writer Andrew Leonard argues that it is — primarily because “the economics of news gathering in the Internet age suck,” as he puts it. And it’s easy to see why someone would be drawn to that point of view, given the rapid decline of the print newspaper business and the waves of layoffs and closures that have affected that industry. But what Leonard is actually complaining about is the failure of a specific business model for funding journalism, not the decline of journalism itself.

Obviously, those two things are fairly closely related: Newspapers have represented the front lines of journalism for a generation or more, with deep benches of talent — including foreign correspondents in dozens of countries around the world, and special investigative-reporting teams. And what has funded all of that journalism has been print-advertising revenue, which has been falling off a cliff for the past decade or two: since 2000, more than $45 billion worth of revenue has effectively disappeared from the print newspaper business.

newspaper ad revenue

But while journalism and the print-newspaper or print-magazine industry have close ties to one another, and have since the 1950s or so, that doesn’t mean they are synonymous, or that because one is fatally ill the other must necessarily die. In fact, by some measures, journalism has never been healthier. And there’s every reason to believe that it is actually getting stronger because of the web, not weaker — regardless of what’s happening to print.

Journalism is more than just newspapers

Even Leonard admits that surveys repeatedly show people are reading more news than they ever have before, thanks in large part to the rise of mobile devices, and he agrees that the worst of the SEO-driven content farms have been vanquished. He also notes that a lot of money has been flowing into online content over the past year, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post for $250 million, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar funding First Look Media for a similar amount, and close to $100 million flowing to BuzzFeed and Vox.

One thing we know for sure: People still want to read the news, and where there is demand there will always be supply. And certainly, if you are a reader, you already are flourishing in a golden age, with access to more content of all kinds than you can possibly consume.

So if readers are being well served, and news reading has never been more popular, then why should we be concerned about the future of journalism? Leonard argues that while readers are getting what they want, “a golden age for readers doesn’t necessarily translate into a golden age for writers or publishers.” For one thing, he says, writers are having a hard time making a living because too many people are willing to work for free — a complaint about the internet’s effect on the media industry that comes up from time to time.

NYT newspapers

Whenever I write about this subject I get deluged by flame emails and Twitter responses, but I don’t see how more people writing journalism — even for free — is a problem. If what we care about is the future of journalism, then it’s actually a good thing, not a bad thing: the more people doing journalism, the better it gets. What Leonard seems concerned about is a particular economic model for producing and distributing that journalism. But who’s to say that the model whose death we are mourning was any better than a new or different model? Here’s Leonard again:

Yes, there are a handful of high-profile start-ups making waves, but it’s not at all clear that they’ve replaced the hundreds and thousands of metro and foreign desk reporter jobs that have vanished in the last decade… one 2011 study found 44.7 percent fewer reporters working in the [San Francisco] Bay area than a decade ago.

The economics have never been better

Here’s the question implied by Leonard’s argument: Should the internet, or new-media entities like BuzzFeed or Vice or Vox, be judged by whether they have been able to replace the thousands of reporter and editor jobs that have vanished in the last decade? I don’t think they should. That would be a little like judging the early years of the automotive industry based on how many horse or buggy-whip-related jobs it managed to replace. Obviously, Vice and Vox and First Look are not going to reconstruct the kind of print-based news industry that ruled the mass-media world of the 1950s and 1960s. But then why should they?

But for me, the most problematic sentence in Leonard’s piece is the one where he says that “the economics of news gathering in the internet age suck.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. As Henry Blodget of Business Insider argued in a post last year about why we are living in a golden age for journalism, the benefits of news-gathering and distribution in a digital age are numerous, and they arguably make both of those functions cheaper by orders of magnitude — to the point where many of the jobs Leonard is mourning are simply not needed any more.

Is the transition from an old model to a new one causing horrendous economic upheaval? Of course it is. And it’s not easy for editors or reporters or writers of any kind to make the transition from one way of doing things to another — but it can be done, and it will be done. And journalism will be just fine, even if print-based newspapers and magazines are not.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Yeko Photo Studio and Getty Images / Mario Tama

28 Responses to “Journalism is doing just fine, thanks — it’s mass-media business models that are ailing”

  1. Thinkin Person

    I believe that is a problem of failing leadership from those with the means to solve the problems. A recent report shows Americans have zero to negligible influence on policy today in the US. So, really, unless a lobbyist takes it up, or an official decides to do it, how can a journalist do it? Journalists can’t do everything! I think people are overwhelmed by the negative vision that is funded and promoted each and every day. Can’t blame journalists for reflecting the reality. Still, even more worrisome is there are 6 companies that control all media. In the end, I guess its really in those six hands to decide what is covered or not, and we have to ask if its beneficial to focus in on the things that make people feel fear, powerlessness, and fatalism, and to whom. P.S. I agree with you too, it can feel overwhelming. Disagree about Opinion pieces. Why can’t people and even journalists express opinions? Look what we learned about racism and sexism from Rush Limbaugh opinions.

  2. Following your premise, i’ll assume its ok to lay off half the lobbyists and Corporate employees, replacing with free volunteers and following this train of logic, we will have all these adult grown ups working for free and keep an economy flowing? Absurdity. I take it you’ll be giving up your salary? Will landlords be giving up asking for rent? Or the store requiring payment? These types of arguments are absurd. Yes. The auto industry replaced millions fold the number of horse and buggy jobs – hence the economic powerhouse our economy became.

  3. F. Stassen

    I totally agree with Mathew Ingram. I’d go a step further and say that fewer and fewer people want to be bombarded with the type of news that comprised the “old model”. War, famine, disease, political polarization, floods… and the negative news goes on and on. Of course the facts must be told, but they need not be dwelt upon. It’s now up to the media and all those neophytes doing journalism to truly inform the masses, providing knowledge (rather than opinion) along with the facts, thus offering a true public service. What can be done to alleviate the famine? How can the disease be eradicated? How can the victims of the floods receive help? The answers to these questions should be included in the media messages.
    Today we have (negative) information overload, and the reader/user feels helpless. The issues are presented as being too big to solve. Apathy sets in. Could that also be part of the problem? Yes, it’s the mass-media business models that need to be rethought.

  4. Its not the internet BUT the monopoly of Facebook ( and Google and one or two more perhaps ) that is the killing factor. In the process of this monopoly ( and no more anti-trust suits like Microsoft faced) internet is also getting killed – its no more an interconnected network of multitude of sites (without commercialism as its sole goal) – internet is now just facebook and some apps.

  5. Peter Curtis

    I see journalism as becoming hyper local in a way that a typical newspaper could not be in the past. For example, I have not been able to find one print rag or website specifically that was great for my area. Roseville California. When I go on the internet for information in the area, I get lots of sites that just exist to sell me a product or service, pretending to be journalism, or sites that have other people pay like or I started my own site that is dedicated to the best parts of my area including a community calendar. To my amazement I got a lot of traffic very quickly. I had no idea it would take off. I am talking just a couple months. I am quite proud of the work I am putting into it and I am a novice. my site is hyper local. I was just doing it for my audience, little did I know it would grow this fast. My intention is to cover the things in my city that locals really want to know about, but no one covers, because the is no money in it. How cool is that. The typical media model does not work like that. It all has to make money for all the advertisers. I am just doing it for fun and my business supports it. I may never get business from it, but I do not care. I create the content my community really appreciates.
    That is good enough.

  6. Reblogged this on Bill Bennett and commented:
    Mathew Ingram has a good point. Journalism is doing OK. That’s true despite the current fuss about certain bloggers here in New Zealand. Or possibly because of them.

    While journalism may be doing fine, journalists are not. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1987 I was told by the president of the Journalist’s Union there were more than 700 members working in Wellington. I doubt there are that number working in New Zealand today.

    What’s more, when I started as a journalist in the early 1980s, it was a well paid, prestigious job. Getting a job was tough, employers could pick from the cream of talent leaving schools, higher ed colleges and universities.

    At that time I earned more than almost anyone else with my age and background, enough to buy a flat in London when I was just 23 and travel around the world in the same year. Today the hourly rate for most journalists is not far off the minimum wage. I know of journalists who work night jobs to pay the rent. A rank and file journalist in Auckland might earn $35,000 to $40,0000 . Incidentally that’s more or less what someone with the same skills would have made in 1987. Likewise, the freelance word rate hasn’t changed in 25 years.

    How do I survive? Mainly by writing features and being paid by the word — writing enough words means long hours. I also write for company web sites and various business focused writing projects. If you need that kind of writing give me a call.

    So yes, journalism may be thriving as a form, but as a career it has gone backwards.

  7. Ariel Adams

    As an internet journalist I feel compelled to offer some feedback on Mathew’s well-intended optimistic look at the current state of journalism in a digital age. However, I think the facts go deeper than he was able to include in the article on GigaOm (a site I have great respect for). The complexities of the arguments are vast, and the irony is what while more people are reading “news” less people are able to make a living from it.

    We are still waist-deep in languishing economy that in many ways is looking to recover from how computers and software removed the need for most middle-income workers that last saw good times in the 1980s. Computers and the internet struck their first blow to the economy when over-night a lot of people’s jobs became replaced with unpaid machines. The next big shock came when media became free. The search-engine games more or less requires that information be free and easy to spread. News readership was linked to sharability and searchability – a situation that didn’t jive well with the traditional model of people buying information. “Free information” became the promise of the internet, but also sent the value of information plummeting.

    So whatever you want to call journalism these days Mathew’s premise is technically correct, internet journalism is thriving if measured by the amount of people actively producing content and people consuming it. That however fails to discuss the nature of the content, the accuracy of the content, the agenda behind the content, and how content is being monetized.

    The real winners are advertisers who enjoy historically unprecedented low advertising costs, and eager news outlets and writers willing to do almost anything (legal or otherwise) to make a buck. This has resulted in almost two decades of advertorial, link bait, cute animal pictures, sponsored reviews, gossip media, and affiliate marketing schemes parading as actual news or journalism.

    A decade ago when “blogging” became a buzzword no one was asking how bloggers make money or if they do. Blogging appeared to be some modern form of journal writing where a public should read someone’s personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Clever bloggers found ways to monetize their content, and sometimes handsomely so – and it was almost always via advertising (either explicit or otherwise).

    Online journalism is widely considered by many to be natural direction cable television news would have taken given its focus purely on viewership and ratings versus quality and socially responsible news reporting.

    There is some fantastic journalism going on right now, and I have nothing but respect for the people who are expert journalists. Very few of them are given the resources to properly research and experience the stories that they want to share. The limited resources many major news outlets have no longer offer many journalists the opportunity to travel or take their time for more in-depth stories and content. Today the internet incentivizes fast, easy to digest content that is shareable and searchable. The old days of deep story telling and investigative reporting are still there, but they are far less common.

    I feel that anyone who takes the above article as a sign that “internet journalism is going great” is going to be misinformed. Mathew’s article is in a sense sort of victim of the devices that have threaten complete story telling overall. In fact, at the end of his article where he basically just suggests that “everything will work itself out,” he falls into the all-to-common trap of modern technologists who feel that any problem, given 5-10 years will work itself out given that there is an economic incentive to do so and that “top people” are on it somewhere. That may be true, but it isn’t guaranteed to be true, and what future developments occur may not prove to make the business of online media any more lucrative, more journalistic, or better for the news consuming public. It is merely a testament to the fact that where money can be made, it will be made – and that is just as often a bad thing as it is a good thing.

    In summary, GigaOm has a laudable and admirable goal of defending the state of online journalism (given that it is an outlet for such), but when it comes down to it this site, like my own and many others, is subject to many of the harsh realities that come with the fact that most high-quality online news outlets are arguably under-performing when it comes to their revenue potential.

  8. chulmin Lee

    You said, “I don’t see how more people writing journalism — even for free — is a problem.”
    With all due respects to your previous excellent analyses on media, I would like to ask you whether you write “for free” and whether I can still keep enjoying your good writing if you work “for free.”
    Quality journalism cannot be free. And I don’t see how US Internet media start-ups you have mentioned in the above can survive in the future without their “deep pocket” sponsors.
    Yes, journalists in those start-ups will get paid for the time being, thanks to their super-rich investors. But have these companies produced solid financial survival plans yet?
    It is needless to say that journalism does not equate with traditional newspaper companies. But I wonder how far those golden-age journalism can go without “outside blood infusion.”

    • In fact, many lawyers do work for free — it’s called pro bono, and they do it because they believe in the case or as a marketing strategy or both. In any case, it’s not that people are arguing journalists or writers *should* work for free, it’s that many of them are doing so freely and willingly, and that has changed the economics of the market.

    • Bankers are working for free – but these are machines. In my locality our small branch had more than 20 employees, now less than 5 or 6. The passbook printing machine is automated, as well as ATM receives or gives money.

      Think of the time, when webcams will be on lamp posts, any people can speak into it while the ‘news’ shows in the background, and reddit type upvoting and wikipedia type editing of news happens.

  9. If Journalism was working then the public would be informed. Speaking as an Australian… the public is anything but informed on many seropusly important issues.

    It’s all well and good pointing to online news, but mainstream media is what the majority of people listen to and it’s running on fumes.

  10. Reporting is labor. Labor is a scarce good. As such, it is subject to the classic laws of economics, the foremost being there is no free lunch. Either someone pays the reporters, or journalism won’t get done. Advertisers, digitally freed from their accidental subsidy of journalism, have decided they are done paying for reporters. The essential question: who will?

    The cost of distribution is essentially zero. This enables myriad distribution platforms. It pours forth endless information streams. Consumers enjoy a golden age of free-flowing content.

    Distribution, however, is not creation. The myriad distribution apps are so many photocopy machines, cranking out copies of the same original material. The amount of that original material is diminishing. Every day I see the same NYT article link in my RSS feed, my FB feed, my Twitter feed, Flipboard, Tumblr, Reddit, and elsewhere. This golden age is actually an unprecedented supply of copies.

    Digital technology has solved the distribution problem. It hasn’t solved the journalism problem. Vox and its brethren are welcome new creators, but their addition to the journalism supply doesn’t offset the larger losses of the past decade. Moreover, Vox doesn’t scale downward. It requires a national, even global, audience to sustain a news operation no larger than your average mid-metro daily.

    To date, there is not even one example of a digitally native local-news operation that employs as many journalists as the newspaper in that town would have employed 15 years ago. There is not one market that is supplying funds directly and exclusively to newsrooms in sufficient amounts to keep dozens of journalists employed in their town. There are a good number of one- and two-person shops covering standalone towns or urban enclaves within much larger metro galaxies. Not even a decade ago, medium-sized markets supported newsrooms of 100+ people. Today those newsrooms are half that size, are still shrinking, and none of those markets has found a way to create a digital version of them even at their current size.

    Vox and its ilk are wonderful examples of innovation and worthy of support. But until we have viable digital-only news shops in Wichita and Bozeman and Durango and Morgantown and Biolxi and Burlington, we won’t be in our new golden age.

  11. When 99% of the media is entertainment media and in bed with the powerful, i.e. Democrat party and ‘billionaire’ progressives, journalism is not doing fine.

  12. Let’s take a moment to compliment the column and its author. Among the most helpful accomplishments in commenting on any public debate is unpacking its unstated assumptions. These taken-for-granted notions about how the world works (often, should work) need to be surfaced in order to be examined because they are usually not universal truths but half truths, framed by and expressing the interests of some particular social position. Kudos!

  13. Quality “journalism” needs to engage the services of suitably trained individuals. They, in turn, need salaries. If the new media business model don’t start generating profits, journalists will have no income. You can’t feed a family by alruistically just “doing journalism”.

  14. Tom Foremski

    People reading more news on mobile devices equals golden times for journalism?

    1300 newsroom jobs lost in 2013 down 33% percent from 55,000 in 2006 to 36,700.

    Digital only newsrooms represent about 5,000 newsroom jobs.

    The business model on mobile is worse than the transition from print to digital ads! One tenth the revenues from paper to digital then one-tenth from digital desktop ads to mobile (and the transition is far faster this time) and you say journalism is doing just fine? I’m speechless.

      • Tom Foremski

        “jobs in traditional newsrooms aren’t synonymous with journalism.” Then what are they? I’m guessing you are trying to say that journalism can be done outside of a traditional newsroom but that’s been true for a while but it doesn’t add up to much at all.

        There’s only one media business model there is not a “mass media business model” because new or old everyone deals with the same economics of the business which is an arbitrage of the worse kind the cost to produce content against what it “sells” for via advertising or subscriptions. Labor costs are the only costs that can be cut and so that’s where the cuts are made and that’s where the cuts in quality are readily seen.

        Follow the money is an old newsroom saying, and in this post you followed the huge gap in annual revenues but concluded it was immaterial because journalism is doing great. It’s clearly not.

  15. Tim Leon

    Barriers to entry no longer exist. The cost of publishing an article has been reduced to close to nothing. Distribution is instantaneous, efficient and broader than ever. Consumption has never been easier, as flexible or as convenient as it is today. The environment for journalism has never been more exciting and yet for some people it has never been more frightening. Content is king as they say and quality is the key. The problem is that with the barrage of information quality can get buried and not always easy to find. Content curation tools such as Nuzzel and Vellum are huge in efficiently finding the articles I want to read and allowing the cream to rise to the top.

  16. fuzzysoul

    Welcome to the New 19th Century – the news is full of stunts, celebrity crap and scandals, and the outlets are all pets of one billionaire or another. Is it better or worse than the Objective Gatekeeper model? Well, the publicly-owned news media of the 20th Century was never as objective or impartial as they took great pains to appear. They just pretended to be in order to avoid an antitrust beatdown. However, they were much more skilled at jousting with power and providing legal cover for their reporters. Today, anything truly interesting gets broken anonymously, and is then run through various analysis and outrage outfits with little in the way of agreed upon fact. It’s a different world. It requires more work and savvy from the reader. Unfortunately, we still have a few generations of older folks who haven’t figured out that 99% of the content on the nets is just bullshit and conjecture.

  17. Quality journalism takes time and effort and its a team effort. The best journalism comes from journalist/reporters who are educated sufficiently to ask the right questions along with editors who can help the journalist/report hone in on nut of the story. None of this is, or should be, free. I guess the question is how will it be paid for in a way that is sustainable. Maybe the not-for-profit model is best?

  18. It would be nice to see more concrete examples of online journalism that can credibly hold power to account (on a small and big scale) and is also financially sustainable. The examples given are always the same – BuzzFeed, Vox, First Look. But it’s hard to imagine that a few online publishers will replace those thousands of reporters and local newspapers in this regard.

  19. Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide” indicates the problems with journalism today are due to excessive kowtowing to government. With cellphones & the internet, everyone is potentially a journalist, yet everyone is subject to prosecution for (say) taking pictures of cops. Do real journalism, go to prison. Sorry, James Risen et al.


      Interesting point, and the threats to journalists are not just blatantly violent/aggressive, it’s subtle things like “you can’t cover the Presidential campaigns unless your work is approved by the party that’s running. Doesn’t seem bad because “nobody’s getting thrown in jail” but it’s pretty horrific.


    I disagree on a few points due to the nature of current media. For example when we say people are reading more news, are we talking op-ed? A huge difference for me between online and print is that in print the articles were usually clearly marked as one or the other. Online almost everything seems to be a blog entry op-ed. The last thing current readers need is more confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Perhaps my personal sampling group is wrong but that seems to be what most people read.

    There is certainly a strong argument against PROFIT-DRIVEN journalistic models. There is not however a model for journalists not getting paid reasonably enough to do their jobs well. Speaking as an artist there are certain jobs that are simply done on a much higher level when they’re done full time, and it’s hard to imagine journalism not being one of them. Writing quality overall is arguable, but the grasp of the language, lack of editors (I assume these sites can’t afford them b/c of the same economics) and frequency of articles based entirely on social networking occurrences don’t seem to be as arguable.

    There’s also an issue of how cult of personality seems to be ruining objectivity of any kind and how narratives are now being openly cultivated and shaped by peer pressure, but it’s probably for another discussion.