Is American Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’?



Paul Farhi

or a few hours last Tuesday, the entire news business seemed to be collapsing all at once. Journalists at Time magazine and National Geographic announced that they had been laid off. Unionized employees at magazines owned by Condé Nast staged a one-day strike to protest imminent cuts. By far the grimmest news was from the Los Angeles Times, the biggest newspaper west of the Washington, D.C., area. After weeks of rumors, the paper announced that it was cutting 115 people, more than 20 percent of its newsroom.

The Times was once a pillar of the American media establishment, celebrated in David Halberstam’s classic media study, The Powers That Be. Now it has become a national exemplar of what the journalist Margaret Sullivan calls the “ghosting” of the news—the gradual withering of news-gathering muscle as once-proud publications become shadows of their old selves. The biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong looked like a savior when he bought the Times from its cost-cutting corporate parent in 2018. For a few years, he was; Soon-Shiong invested about $1 billion, by his count, to build up the depleted organization. But he turned out to have his limits. Facing mounting losses, in June last year the Times dropped 74 people from its newsroom. Last week’s even bigger blow was foreshadowed by managerial turmoil: Three top editors, including the executive editor Kevin Merida, resigned just before the news came down. “I won’t fault him for being unwilling to write checks,” Matt Pearce, a Times reporter who is head of the newspaper’s union, told me, referring to Soon-Shiong. But, he added, “we don’t seem to have a clear theory of the case as a business. We need to execute on a strategy. And we don’t have one.” (Soon-Shiong declined to comment for this article.)

The decline of the legacy news media has been playing out for decades, exacerbated most recently by the advent of the internet and the explosion of digital platforms, especially the ad-revenue-gobbling tech giants Google and Meta. Even when the ad-supported model of journalism still worked, the history of American media was punctuated by periods of dramatic expansion and contraction, often coinciding with the arrival of new technologies. The latest round of cuts, however, represents a grim new milestone. The Washington Post, NBC News, ABC News, NPR, ViceVox, and BuzzFeed, among others, have shed hundreds of journalists over the past year. (Disclosure: I’m one of them. In December, I took a buyout from The Washington Post.)No corner of national media seems unaffected. Even Condé Nast’s The New Yorker magazine, heretofore seemingly impervious, announced a numerically insignificant but symbolically freighted staff cut in December. All told, job losses among print-, digital-, and broadcast-news organizations grew by nearly 50 percent during 2023, according to the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

What makes this so unnerving is the fact that the meltdown has come amid—and in seeming defiance of—a generally booming economy. The ranks of professional journalists keep declining even as overall unemployment stays low, incomes rise, and the stock market reaches new heights. What’s more, a presidential-election cycle tends to produce a surge of readers, viewers, and advertisers as people pay closer attention to the news. Not this time, at least so far: Traffic to leading news sites and Nielsen ratings of national cable news trended down throughout 2023.

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