The future of journalism rests in the hands of the people

by Carolyn Bick

It’s no secret that journalism is in peril.

Over the course of 2019, journalism has lost 7,200 jobs. And these jobs weren’t just from small, struggling newsrooms hungry for ad revenue and eyeballs. They were also from big, digital powerhouses that were expected to be the wave of the future –– places like the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vice, and even Gannett-owned papers that pepper the nation’s smallest towns. Even Seattle publications weren’t safe: Seattle Magazine’s publisher, Tiger Oak Media, just filed for bankruptcy, its debts falling somewhere between $1 million and $10 million.

It was this bleak atmosphere in which panelists Marcus Harrison Green, Erica C. Barnett, Matt Gertz, and moderator David “Goldy” Goldstein tried to find some hope, during a discussion hosted at Town Hall Seattle and sponsored by Civic Ventures on the chilly evening of Oct. 8.

Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters kicked off the event with a presentation for the audience to give the discussion some context and history.

In the beginning –– the early aughts, when the Internet started to gain more traction –– the loss was like a slow bleed, an unnoticed, careless paper cut. But then, the 2008 recession hit, and the bleed became a geyser. Within the first five months of the following year, 2009, journalism lost 7,914 jobs. And even though the rest of the economy is doing well by several hard measures, journalism still hasn’t quite recovered: newsroom employment is still down by 25 percent since 2008, and this year’s attrition rate looks on par with 2009’s.

Gertz said this loss is tied to two factors: advertising revenue and subscribers. With Facebook and Google eating up more and more of online advertising, and younger generations consuming news online and through social media, print newspapers are simultaneously losing both ad revenue and subscribers. This is true even if they move to online-only formats, because tech behemoths like the aforementioned Facebook and Google gobble up more than half of online advertising revenue.

So, eventually, the newspapers start cutting staff to reduce costs. Maybe it’s a State House reporter here, or a couple investigative reporters there. Maybe they start filling their papers with more wire content. But this means that all those subscribers who read their local paper specifically for local coverage are no longer interested. They cancel their subscriptions. The paper loses more money. And the newspaper again cuts back. And more subscribers disappear. The vicious cycle continues until the paper folds, another dessicated cicada husk from which no new life is born skittering across the pavement, often leaving a small-town media desert in its wake.

“The cost of every shuttered newspaper is a less-informed public,” Gertz said.

This guttering decline has also been fuelled by the conservative push to decrease the public’s trust in media, a push most conspicuously led by the current president and the right-wing media mouthpiece, Fox News, which has been pushing the don’t-trust-the-media narrative since the late 1990s, Gertz said.

Gertz’s case in point: Sinclair Broadcast Group, a right-wing media organization that reaches 40 percent of Americans nationally, owns KOMO News, which in March released the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” segment that pushed the narrative that people experiencing homelessness are the root cause of Seattle’s problems. Fox News latched onto the idea five days later, and wrapped it into the broader narrative that Democratic cities are ungovernable.

But despite this, perhaps all is not lost: Barnett, who runs the local news site, “The C is for Crank,” said that she believes media can and will survive, if the community invests in it. And she doesn’t necessarily mean big donors. She pointed to NPR’s model of community fundraising, and her own site’s method of providing free content that readers can support through donating on Patreon or PayPal.

Gertz agreed that this model works well mainly for single-person journalism organizations, with some larger publications like the Texas Tribune proving exceptions, but said the question is how to effectively scale it for all organizations in a way that allows them to train the next generation of reporters, or do long-term investigative work. Still, he remains hopeful.

“As long as there are journalists trying to find out the facts and people willing to pay for what they do, there will be journalism out there,” Gertz said.

Barnett also believes that concurrent way forward could lie in what she called “a labor-based suggestion,” namely that freelancers like herself band together to form a freelancer’s union, or a sort of cartel of small outlets that can pull together and share resources. Still, challenges would remain: freelancers do not get guaranteed sick leave, vacation, or overtime. They are also responsible for both employer and employee taxes.

Of course, it was in a challenging environment six years ago that Green decided to start the South Seattle Emerald (on which your eyes, dear Reader, are now fixed). He came from the hedge fund world, and “wanted to do something purposeful” for his South Seattle community, which suffered from a dearth of coverage by local media, except when it came to Rainier Beach High School’s basketball team, “urban blight,” or crime. He sought to give the people of the South End the same narrative complexity afforded to young, white men.

In this quest, though, Green lost his savings; his parents lost their house, “because we had put everything into the Emerald.”

“Thankfully, now, it’s surviving, but, even then, it just goes to show you, epitomizes how hard it is to fund and continue a nonprofit media outlet in this day and age. If it wasn’t for the thousands of people we’ve been able to amass over the course of six years, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” Green said.

And it’s publications like the Emerald that are seeking to fill the increasingly large gaps left by decaying local coverage, which includes the so-called “paper of record” for Washington State, The Seattle Times. Green recently left the Seattle Times, despite joining it last year skeptical of its ability to well and truly change its proverbial stripes, when it came to adequately covering the South End. By the time he left, that skepticism had been cemented into certainty: it couldn’t.

“I remember having a companywide meeting with the CFO, and one of the questions that was asked of him was, ‘What is your plan, essentially, for outreach of these areas?’ And it was like, ‘Well, basically, we don’t have one,’” Green recalled. “If the tree falls in the forest, and nobody’s there, right?” 

Green believes the way to keep journalism alive is to radically change the nature of its funding, beyond even what Barnett had suggested. He thinks a system akin to Seattle’s democracy voucher program would help, in which people could choose to donate to the media outlets of their choice. But one thing is for certain, he said. News organizations can’t keep sticking to the same way of doing things, or journalism –– and democracy –– will die.

“We can’t keep asking journalists to struggle and make a living off $50,000 a year in a city that is growing increasingly expensive, and pretend that they are going to be okay, and tough it out for 20 years,” Green said. “We are dying, literally, and we need something drastic and transformative to happen.”

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Featured image courtesy of Meera Bhardwaj.

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