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

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