Layoffs for digital giants. Local newsrooms slowly dying. The crooked rejoice.
|Jan 28||Public post|
You might have seen the bad news about the news recently, which in this round included a bunch of layoffs at BuzzFeed and HuffPo, in addition to the forever-round of local newspapers slowly dying a horrific death.
Or maybe you didn’t because a lot of people probably didn’t. A lot of people don’t read the news and therefore don’t care if it dies. I don’t know why they don’t care because it enrages me when people in power abuse their power and take advantage of vulnerable people, which is what a lot of powerful people in this country do all the time. Catching them doing those bad things is what journalists like myself wake up each morning to do.
Maybe some people don’t care if the news dies because — even though there are a lot of power-abusing people — their impact is relatively small compared to the entire population. Many Americans will live their whole lives without being screwed over and made to feel helpless by someone who is much more powerful than them.
But if that does happen there are really only two people to call: the cops or a reporter. Someone said last week that all the layoffs meant about 1,000 reporters without a job now. Someone else then said we lose that many reporters at local newspapers every month. I have a book from 2009 called The Death and Life of American Journalism. It details how the 2008 recession cut off a few limbs of the news, reducing the number of journalists nationwide by somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.
Since then it’s only gotten worse, and if you think it’s bad now, wait’ll another recession hits.
I have another book that I just started reading about Hunter Thompson. The author ignores the drug-addled caricature that most people associate with Thompson and focuses on his obsession with fighting American fascism through his writing. A friend recommended it to me because he reads this newsletter and said it reminds him of Thompson’s fight.
Thompson began his life-long battle the night John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, which happened about 10 minutes from my house. That night, Thompson started writing letters to his friends. In one of them, the author of this book says, he warned that Kennedy’s death opened a vacuum for scumbags like Richard Nixon to exploit. So Thompson spent the next several decades skewering Nixon at every opportunity. Nixon became Thompson’s nemesis-for-life.
What’s crazy about my friend telling me this newsletter is sort of like that is thinking about how Thompson fought Nixon forever, and now we’ve got someone even worse than Nixon in the White House.
So, I imagine, I’ll be sitting here 30 years from now writing about a president who’s somehow worse than Trump because apparently Americans are unable or unwilling to learn the lessons of what Thompson started writing about in 19-fucking-63.
The cuts at BuzzFeed and HuffPo came because — in some way, shape or form — those publications weren’t making enough money. There’s plenty of fair criticism to go around about how they operated and spent money — other than Jason Leopold, I can’t name a single BuzzFeed reporter off the top of my head, I’m sorry. And I read a lot of news, I’m sure double or triple the amount of the average American. For HuffPo, the only person I can think of is one of the politics editors because I follow her on Twitter and see her stuff there a lot. So maybe BuzzFeed and HuffPo were spending a lot of money on big newsrooms and not getting a lot in return, I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that their newsrooms were slashed because they didn’t make enough money for the companies and people that own those publications.
That’s because the news is no longer profitable in any meaningful sense. To be profitable you have to make money off advertising, and the only medium that makes money off advertising is TV.
This is why the news has to seize the means of production, as the saying goes. For too long, reporters did their jobs and didn’t know or do anything about the business side of their publications — and unfortunately more than a few that I know still operate that way.
Donald Trump seized the means of news production by having tens of millions of Twitter followers he can tell lies to every day. He also seized the means of production by putting together a massive email list to ask people for money a few times a week in order to support the lies he tells and the policies he’s trying to implement that back up those lies.
The news isn’t really necessary, which is why it’s so vulnerable to being destroyed. There are certain occupations that are required to make the trains run on time. The people who drive trains, obviously. Doctors, lawyers, the people who build the house or office you’re sitting in right now, the guys who come pick up my garbage and recycling, the postman who delivers my mail and makes my dog lose his ever-loving mind in the most stereotypical and maddening dog-hates-mailman way that always happens when I’m on the phone interviewing someone — these are jobs that are required for us to get around our cities and towns without driving into a sinkhole.
Nothing about our daily lives requires someone to wake up each day and look for bad things that are happening, then ask people in power why those bad things are happening and why they’re not doing anything about it. No one needs that person in a society. We might need them in an idealistic sense — to keep people accountable and give voice to the voiceless, all that — but no one needs reporters to keep the street lights on and put out a fire at your house.
In fact if your house is on fire all we’re going to do is run towards it and take some pictures, then ask you how bad it feels to have your house burn down. In a way we’re like first responders, because when bad things happen we run towards them, not away. That is the first test you have to pass in order to be a good reporter — if you hear gunshots, you have to run toward them. It is your job, and sometimes it means you will die doing it.
That person doesn’t have to exist, and people in power would prefer if they didn’t exist. Because if that person runs toward gunfire and sees the police shooting an unarmed, innocent man, they will report that and the cops will face consequences.(1)
This is why very few people in power are doing anything to save the news. They know it will be better for them when they kill the news because assholes like me won’t be around anymore to go through their financial disclosure forms and bills and ask why it is that they’re introducing legislation that will help their companies.
Publications are finally starting to figure this out, I think. They’ve begun to ask readers to pay them directly so they don’t have to worry about meeting revenue targets in an industry that doesn’t really produce anything other than stories. Hell, it’s why I started this newsletter.
For the past couple weeks I’ve been working on a piece about my hometown newspaper, the Journal Star. It’s where I had my first job as a reporter and first started seeing the problems in the industry. It’s only gotten worse since then. I mean bad. Real bad. There are about five reporters on the news side (as opposed to sports) left in the entire newsroom. Most of them won’t talk to me on the record for my story but a few people who have left the paper have.
I’ve been struggling with how to write it because a friend said I should pitch it to a few publications, which would mean having to format it for their style and make it more newsy. I don’t really want to do that because that’s not the point of the story — plenty have already written and plenty more will write about the decline of the news industry by using facts and figures and statistics.
I’d like to write about how they’re killing the news in my hometown from a personal perspective, and how it affects the people who used to work there. Which is the other reason I started this newsletter — because some stories aren’t meant for news publications, and are best at home here.
So, if you like what you read here, send a link to some friends and tell them there’s going to be a really good story here soon about the death of a local newspaper from a guy who used to work there.
(1) Sometimes, that is. As you may remember from the years 2014-2016, a lot of police killed a lot of people and were never punished for it. The number of police shootings hasn’t gone down in recent years, we just don’t cover them as much because Trump is a blunt object who suck the oxygen out of the news.
P.S. All the photos on this post are mine. The first one is of a theater in South Central Dallas from when I first came here to cover the shooting in July 2016 that killed five cops. The second photo is of my buddy Bill Kotsatos’ gear in some motel in Cleveland when we were there for the Republican National Convention. We brought our riot gear because the Dallas shooting had only been a few months before, and we were on the heels of a two-year police shooting war that Bill and I travelled the country to cover. I guess because of Trump we’ve collectively forgotten about that strange and distressing portion of recent American history. The third photo is of my buddy, Alex Wroblewski. I took it some time in the summer of 2016 at a crime scene on the West Side of Chicago. We were both living in the city at the time and finishing up the crime reporting portions of our careers. He’s in Washington D.C. now doing a lot of politics stuff, and gearing up for the 2020 campaign.