What needs to be done to help the media industry

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

If it wasn’t already obvious that the media industry was in dire straits before the coronavirus came along, it has become abundantly obvious now. Every day, it seems, news outlets both large and small announce waves of furloughs, salary cuts, and layoffs for significant numbers of their employees — the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, BuzzFeed, McClatchy (which had already filed for bankruptcy before the pandemic), Conde Nast, even Fox Corp. have all implemented cuts. Protocol, the tech news startup launched by the owners of Politico in February, just laid off almost half its newsroom. Some newspapers in smaller communities have shut down completely, and may or may not be able to return once the economy picks up. So what should we be doing about this? Should there be some kind of government bailout? Should digital platforms like Google and Facebook be forced to subsidize a public fund for media? And if so, how would the recipients be chosen and by whom?

Those are just some of the questions CJR wanted answers to, so we convened a virtual panel on our Galley discussion platform this week with some of those who have thought long and hard about these issues. We spoke to Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recent book “Democracy Without Journalism”; Craig Aaron, co-CEO of Free Press; Travis Waldron from HuffPost; David Chavern, director of the News Media Alliance; John Stanton from the Save Journalism Project; Sarah Alvarez from Outlier Media; Anne Nelson from Columbia University; Jonathan O’Connell, a financial reporter at the Washington Post; Steven Waldman, co-founder of Report For America; Chris Horne from The Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio; Melissa Davis from Colorado Media; Yosef Getachew from Common Cause; and John Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild-CWA. Those interviews and more are all available on the Galley featured page.

“it is now abundantly clear that there is no commercial solution for local journalism,” said Victor Pickard. “Local journalism was in shambles even before the pandemic struck. But now the newspaper industry – which is still our major source for original local reporting in the US – is facing existential doom. Given that context, we need immediate emergency funding.” Pickard went on to say that any funds handed out should be conditional on news outlets either becoming nonprofits or working towards that status. “Otherwise, we risk propping up failed commercial models,” he said. Craig Aaron of Free Press talked about the letter that his group, along with PEN America and Common Cause, sent to Congress, calling on the House and Senate to take immediate action to help journalists. The letter asked for emergency funds for newsrooms and increased federal appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support public and community media of all kinds, especially in smaller communities.

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The good news trend: Uplifting or delusional? Or both?

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Since we are currently in a global pandemic that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the closure of stores, restaurants, and other hallmarks of normal life, it’s not surprising many people are searching for things to take their minds off the gloom. And what they are clinging to — and sharing on social networks — is often explicitly “good news,” whether it’s heart-warming stories about kids having virtual birthday parties where friends drive by and honk their horns, or people banging pots and pans to celebrate health-care workers. There’s even a “news network” dedicated to this kind of thing, although it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre. It’s a YouTube channel that consists of actor John Krasinski, best known for his role in the sitcom The Office, sitting at a desk in what appears to be his den, dressed in a suit and hosting a show he calls Some Good News, complete with a hand-painted sign that reads SGN (drawn by his children). He throws to video clips and does live interviews, just like John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, but the purpose is to be uplifting, not satirical.

Krasinski’s show may be the most recent example, but it’s far from the only one. Musician David Byrne, co-founder of The Talking Heads, launched a site last year called Reasons to be Cheerful (a name taken from a song by British musician Ian Dury) that he said was designed to give people reasons for hope, as opposed to the bleak landscape that traditional news offers. Byrne has described it as “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” He told Rolling Stone magazine he wanted to give people something to make them feel better about the world. “It often seems as if the world is going straight to Hell. I wake up in the morning, I look at the paper, and… often I’m depressed for half the day,” he said. Mother Jones magazine has a newsletter that focuses on positive news called Recharge, and the Washington Post has a similar newsletter filled with “inspiring” stories called The Optimist. Before it became synonymous with clickbait headlines, the digital news aggregator Upworthy was designed to distribute feel-good stories via social media.

It seems churlish to even question this trend, because it’s so clearly designed to be heart-warming. Who doesn’t want their heart warmed, especially when we are all marinating in a stew of fear and despair? And even if someone didn’t want their heart warmed, what kind of monster would begrudge someone else having theirs warmed? Especially if it’s by a little girl being serenaded by the entire cast of Hamilton because she couldn’t make it to the real Broadway show. Watching that kind of gesture — as calculated or orchestrated as it might be — touches a very human place in us, like watching kittens play with string, or seeing a child do something adorably dumb. When I shared a short video clip of a spring stream flowing through the woods near my house recently, several people I don’t even know thanked me profusely for it, as though I had offered them a drink after days of crawling through the desert.

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Protocol layoffs raise some troubling questions

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

When Protocol, a new site focusing on technology coverage, launched in February, expectations were high. After all, the man behind the site — Robert Allbritton, who owns it through his holding company, Capital News — also helped create Politico, one of the most successful digital media companies of the last 20 years or so. And it sounded like Protocol was going to duplicate the Politico model: hire a bunch of talented writers away from leading publications, set them loose on a topic, and then rely on a combination of advertising and high-end subscription revenue to pay the bills. Lather, rinse and repeat. Except that’s not what happened. This week, Protocol laid off 13 of its employees, according to one report, and it appears that more than three-quarters of that total — or 10 staff in all — were reporters and editors. The site’s entire complement of editors and reporters numbered about 25 before the layoffs, according to Protocol’s About page, which means that Allbritton just laid off almost half of the site’s newsroom.

Obviously, no one in the media industry saw the coronavirus coming, and it has thrown a wrench into the revenue plans of virtually every news publisher out there, big or small. Companies have been cutting salaries, putting reporters and editors on paid leave, and taking other steps to curb their spending in the hope that they can survive the virus-triggered downturn in advertising. But it’s difficult to think of a publisher that has taken the kind of extreme step that Protocol has, and laid off more than 40 percent of the staff that report and edit its news. In a memo to staff, Allbritton and two senior managers said that the coronavirus “has done nothing to shake our faith in Protocol’s mission or our long-term opportunity,” but added that its spinoff effects have “profoundly changed the economic realities of the present” (CJR tried to get a comment from Protocol or Allbritton, but they didn’t respond by publication time).

In a memo to staff at Politico, Allbritton said the current crisis “has elements of the fear that we felt after 9/11, the financial worry that we experienced in 2008, and the unknown that surrounds a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado all rolled into one.” He went on to say that Protocol “hired ambitiously in anticipation of rolling out a significant number of new growth products in the second half of 2020,” and that he had to make the “difficult but necessary decision to reduce short-term costs until a more robust revenue pipeline resumes.” What’s confusing about the layoff decision, given this statement, is the finality of it. Many companies have put their staff on furlough, which implies that they will be able to come back once the economic downturn starts to recede. If Protocol’s owner was genuinely committed to its “mission and long-term opportunity,” why wouldn’t he keep some of those 13 people around by putting them on paid leave, or cutting salaries enough to meet short-term goals?

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Giving coronavirus protests the oxygen of amplification

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As the coronavirus quarantine stretches into its second month, there are signs that some people are growing restless after being locked inside their homes with virtually no contact with the outside world, and some of them are pushing the boundaries of the lockdown restrictions in various ways. In some cases, groups of protesters have been gathering at town halls and other government buildings, or stopping traffic on the streets of cities across the US, holding up signs questioning the need for a continued quarantine with slogans like “Land of the Free!” and “Fake Crisis!” But are these genuine protests organized by random concerned citizens with strong opinions about the lengths to which the quarantine effort has gone, or is there more going on here? And if it’s the latter, then shouldn’t the press be thinking long and hard before playing into the hands of the organizers of those protests by giving them free publicity?

According to a number of media reports, anti-lockdown rallies have been seen in a number of states over the past week, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Minnesota. Trump even appeared to encourage protesters to take to the streets in a series of tweets, advising residents to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Not surprisingly, Fox News has given these rallies a lot of air time, complete with maps that make it look as though a grassroots movement has taken over and is growing larger by the day — something the network also did during the days of the Tea Party in 2009. The network has even used the term that organizers came up with for the protests, in an attempt to portray them as democracy in action: namely, “Freedom Rallies.” And the footage used often gives the impression that there are large throngs of demonstrators, even though in at least one case, a video from a alternate vantage point told a different story.

Over the past several days, evidence has emerged that these may not be grassroots protests at all, but “astroturf” — in other words, a carefully planned simulation of grassroots action. According to a report in the Washington Post, some of the largest Facebook groups used to organize many of these protests are run by a family of far-right, pro-gun activists: Ben Dorr, political director of a gun-rights group in Minnesota and his brothers, Christopher and Aaron. The Facebook groups have become sources of the same kinds of misinformation about the coronavirus that have been seen at a number of the protests — that the virus is no worse than the flu, that the scientists working on a vaccine have ulterior motives, and so on. By Sunday, the groups had more than 200,000 members. According to the Post, other demonstrations have been promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by a longtime adviser to Dick DeVos, husband of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

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Coronavirus continues to take its toll on the media industry

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

It’s hard to imagine an industry being more poorly prepared for the arrival of a global pandemic than the media business. Even before “coronavirus” became a household word, the industry was already reeling from a series of body blows, most of them delivered by Google and Facebook and their dominance of the advertising market. Since 2008, nearly half of US newspaper journalism jobs have disappeared, according to the LA Times, leaving fewer than 38,000 reporters, photographers and editors. Waves of layoffs have become the norm, not just for large chains like Gannett and McClatchy but for smaller papers, and even for digital giants like BuzzFeed and Vox, who at one time were seen as the future of online media. Then along came COVID-19, and with it the unprecedented shutdown of entire cities, and the erasure of huge swaths of the advertising business. For many outlets, it will likely become what media analyst Ken Doctor calls “an extinction event.” For some, it already is.

The LA Times profiled one example of this sad trend. Jeff VonKaenel, 69, owner of the Sacramento News & Review and sister publications in Chico and Reno, has been running weekly newspapers for almost 50 years, and has survived wildfires, recessions, and being sued by a mayor. But the extinguishing of almost all his advertising in the wake of COVID-19 left him no other choice: four days after the virus was defined as a pandemic, VonKaenel shut down his presses for the last time and laid off all 40 members of his staff. “This could be the death knell, not only for us but for the dailies that we compete with,” he said. VonKaenel told the Times he is still trying to come up with a way to continue serving the community, possibly by partnering with a non-profit. But he could no longer cover the $45,000 a week it took to run the paper (last year, he and his wife borrowed against their home to keep it afloat).

A similar story has played out across big and small publications over the past month. The Jewish Chronicle, first published in 1841, and Jewish News in the UK recently shut down and liquidated all of their assets. Alternative weeklies across the US and Canada have cut back on printing and laid off staff. Meanwhile, a broad range of large and medium-sized publishers and news outlets have implemented cost-saving plans that consist of both paid and unpaid leave for significant numbers of staff and reduced salaries for others. According to a recent estimate by the New York Times, roughly 33,000 workers at news companies in the US have been laid off, been furloughed or had their pay reduced in the past month. Schneps Media, for example, a local news publisher that recently acquired the free newspapers amNewYork and Metro New York, has laid off or given paid leave to about 30 employees at its roughly 50 community publications, or about 20 percent of its work force.

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