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No news is terrible news

Like other industries, the news media suffered during the first years of the pandemic. But while the rest of the economy has come roaring back, that’s not the case with news. 2023 was a godawful year, with layoffs in the news divisions at CNN, NBC, and ABC. The Washington Post made deep cuts in October and newspaper chain Gannett chipped its news division by 6%, according to Poynter, a nonprofit media institute that declared 2023 “the worst year for the news business since the pandemic.” 

As Axios reports, 2024 appears to be a continuation of that trend. This is a presidential election year, which might be expected to generate more interest and more revenue. Declines that were attributed to less readership following the loss of Donald Trump’s daily antics might have been expected to reverse themselves when Trump returned to center stage. Except it’s not happening. Revenue and readership are still headed down and major cuts are ripping through news outlets of all sorts, whether they are print, broadcast, or online.

The biggest reason is simple: Ad revenue is no longer adequate to support news organizations. But the deeper reason behind that decline is elusive and while everyone scrambles to find some alternative, lights are shutting off in newsrooms across the nation.

If “Democracy dies in darkness,” as The Washington Post’s motto insists, it’s starting to look pretty dim out there. And nightfall may not be far away.

The decline in ad revenue has had major impacts beyond what might be thought of as core news organizations like the Los Angeles Times, which announced 115 layoffs this week. Sports Illustrated laid off almost its entire staff last month after its publisher was unable to pay a quarterly licensing fee. Business Insider laid off 8% of its employees on Thursday.

As Pew Research reported in November, traditional news media’s audience continues to decline. That’s true of newspapers, national news networks, and their online incarnations. It’s not a matter of more people looking at The New York Times online while not buying the physical paper; those readers have simply gone away.

The two exceptions that Pew points out are local broadcast stations, which have seen essentially flat revenues over the past year, and Fox News. While other news networks have seen a decline in the last two years, Fox has been trending upward.

Fox News not only holds fast to conservative talking points (even when they are lies) but, unlike its rivals, the network devotes a significant portion of its time to attacking other news outlets, regularly building on Trump’s infamous “fake news” narrative. It’s reached the point where Republicans trust only a very small number of outlets, with Fox News coming in second only to the Weather Channel. 

But if Democrats trust far more news sources than Republicans, they’re not helping to sustain those outlets with subscriptions or viewership. Audiences are simply headed down across the board. 

The same is true for online sites and even social media networks. After the 2016 election, companies tired of making the investments necessary to maintain accuracy in reporting and moderate online discussions. It takes a lot of work to keep any online forum from descending into conspiracy theories and neo-Nazi tirades. Many social media sites cut back radically on news features. Others handed the keys to Elon Musk, who welcomed racism and bigotry with open arms.

News outlets are now caught in a trap where ad revenues are falling, a landscape littered with the bodies of former giants makes it difficult to lure investors, and higher interest rates make it more difficult to sustain companies while searching for an answer.  

This makes it seem as if the answer may be Musk. Or at least Musk, and Rupert Murdoch, and Jeff Bezos, and other deep-pocketed billionaires who can pick up a media property without worrying about making a profit.

The recent sale of The Baltimore Sun to multimillionaire David Smith, executive chairman of conservative Sinclair Broadcasting, is a prime example of this worrisome trend. In an insulting first meeting with the staff of his new acquisition, Smith admitted he had only read the paper four times, despite having lived in Baltimore most of his life. He also seemed completely unaware of the paper’s local reporting, even though that reporting generated a recent Pulitzer Prize win. 

Smith has not committed to keeping any of the paper’s current staff and doesn’t care about their accomplishments. What he bought was just another megaphone to use (alongside the 200 television stations controlled by Sinclair) to spread a conservative, pro-Trump message

A single company owning that many stations would have been unimaginable a few decades ago, and so would the idea of owning newspapers and television stations in the same market. However, the Federal Communications Commission has been steadily easing restrictions, allowing the remaining media outlets to rest in fewer and fewer hands.

Rules that were adopted in the 1960s and 1970s were meant to encourage competition in the news space and ensure that no one voice could dominate a local market. Those rules are gone. If you want a glimpse of the feudal society ahead, where billionaires replace barons and run their kingdoms as they see fit, news outlets provide a pretty good sneak peek.

At a time when the United States is facing an enormous crisis in just trying to hold on to representative democracy and there may be more news than ever that absolutely demands to be reported, the resources to do that reporting are disappearing. 

Daily Kos is not immune to this trend. Those same declining ad revenues that are causing staff cuts across the industry led, in part, to the first layoffs in Daily Kos’ 20-year history last year. 

The online space was supposed to democratize news. But actual news—collected, analyzed, and written by human beings—requires resources. The precipitous drop in ad revenues has made those resources thin on the ground. How this crisis will be solved remains unclear and it’s far from certain that it will be solved.

In the meantime, we don’t have billionaires. We just have you.

Tim Miller from “The Next Level” podcast comes on to discuss Iowa, New Hampshire, and the cracks they expose in Donald Trump’s MAGA movement.


January 2024