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Despite What You’ve Heard About Subscription Booms, The Media Is Still Tanking


Journalism today is a crash site. Onlookers see the debris field and wonder what happened. In July, for example, 28-year-old Ross Barkan, a self-described “American journalist and writer,” published an article in The Guardian’s U.S. edition with this headline: “Biggest Threat to Journalism Isn’t Donald Trump. It’s Declining Revenues.”

This promising headline devolved into name-calling in the first paragraph and throughout the article: “Donald Trump’s … fascist White House …. Trumpian nihilists …. winner-take-all capitalist system.”  The headline got it right: Journalism is dying, but it’s not related to fascism, nihilism, or capitalism. Declining revenues really are the threat.

This will surprise some, because it contradicts declarations from The New York Times and a few big newspapers touting increased digital subscriptions. Digital circulation jumps, however, do not equate to revenue increases. Pew Research Center pointed out in June that, despite subscription increases for a few big newspapers, overall circulation and revenue for the industry are down.

The Newspaper Ship Is Sinking

According to Pew’s June report, total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers—both print and digital—fell 8 percent in 2016, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines. The overall circulation decline coincided with a double-digit decline in advertising revenue for the industry. The New York Times saw a year-over-year decline of 9 percent in advertising revenue but a 3 percent rise in circulation revenue, for an overall revenue decline of 2 percent.

Failing business models result in staff cuts, which are rarely reported. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, newspapers “lost” (i.e., cut) more than half of their workforce (238,000 jobs) over a 15-year period between 2001-2016. The employment numbers plummeted from 412,000 jobs in 2001 to 174,000 in 2016.

It is unlikely many journalists will report on that because the news industry has always been its own best PR agent. Media PR is working hard to manage the crash site. Even Columbia Journalism Review notes the lack of transparency from media companies like Gannett and others about their own job cuts. Columbia Journalism Review has issued a “call to action” seeking information about newsroom staff reduction from employees themselves since management declines to comment.

The New York Times, which talks about its “success,” endured a walk-out by hundreds of employees in June protesting the company’s plan to cut its copy editors from more than 100 to about 50 or 55. Times copy editors sent a letter protesting the cuts to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn. The copy editors claim management “compared [them] to dogs urinating on fire hydrants” in an internal report.

In addition, the Times will vacate “at least eight floors” in its Manhattan headquarters. As Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Mark Thompson announced to employees, “We’ve made the decision to consolidate … to create a more dynamic, modern and open workplace, one that is better suited to the moment.” At this “moment,” top execs acknowledge keeping the eight floors is “too expensive,” and the move will help “generate significant rental income.” This was a much-touted new headquarters building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano that opened in 2007.

If all this weren’t enough, at the end of a September movie review in The Guardian’s U.S. Edition is a note from the editors under the subhead, “Since you’re here …” It states: “More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast.” It looks like an appeal to crowdfunding to support the business model. As noted, digital circulation jumps do not equate to revenue increases, or success.

The Three Big Contributing Factors

So what is happening in journalism? The back story is this: Historically, journalism has always been partisan, but today it has abandoned any pretext of fidelity to the canons of journalism. Public trust has never been lower. The business model is collapsing. Few in the industry are able to connect the dots. There are at least three steps to journalism’s present state.

Think film vs. digital. Lots of people take pictures today. How many use film? Shift happens. The traditional media, like the film industry, is in the midst of a massive technology transformation from internet, digital, and social media. Worldwide, two former film companies survive with very different business models — Kodak and Fuji. Among the dead and walking dead are Agfa, Ilford, Polaroid, Konica, and others.

Shift happened to the film industry, and a similar technology shift has turned journalism’s business model on its head and disrupted the press’ traditional power.

That takes us to: journalism’s information monopoly is over. Thanks to social media and the democratizing influence of the Internet, journalism has lost its prized gatekeeper function. This loss of dominance is what Andrew Heywood, former VP of CBS News, mourned when he admitted, “The era of omniscience [for the news media] is over.”

Of course, that is not the only problem journalism faces. As data shows, Americans have turned their backs on the press. Sixty-eight percent of Americans now say they have little or no trust in the press, according to Gallup, which has tracked response to this question annually since 1997.

The press treats polls as hard news, but will not touch its own sinking poll numbers, which have been declining for 20 years (long before President Trump’s election). Gallup calls that “a stunning development for an institution designed to inform the public.” Polls often make “front page” news — except this one. Why?

The Media Has Hurt Its Own Credibility

Think of the self-described “hack” journalist Glenn Thrush, who sent his draft articles to John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, for approval. Where does that behavior fit in the canons of journalism? Have there been any resignations based on principle? How about calls among journalists for accountability? No, the “hack” journalist was hired by The New York Times.

Recall a NYT op-ed published in April 2003 by Eason Jordan. Jordan was then head of CNN News, which promised to be “the most trusted name in news.” He admitted that CNN had suppressed news out of Iraq about torture, terror, and assassination plots under Saddam Hussein for 12 years (YEARS). He said he feared for CNN employees’ safety. For 12 years “the most trusted name in news” could not figure out a plan to deal with this situation.

Contrast that with John Burns, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for foreign reporting for the NYT. Burns reported how Saddam had turned Iraq into a slaughterhouse. Read his scathing assessment of his journalistic colleagues in his book “Embedded — The Media at War in Iraq.”

In April 2015, Burns wrote in The New York Times, “There is the fear, too, of indulging in what reporters of my generation have been disciplined to avoid: abandoning the dictates of objective reporting for the hazardous ground of moral presumption, and with it the dreary vales of self-righteousness.”

So it goes with monopoly institutions. Despite the evidence, one senses that establishment journalists believe they are on top and can get away with compromised behavior forever. Welcome to Step 3: The glacier moves slowly but takes everything in its path.

Intel co-founder Andrew Grove warned of this slide in his 1996 book, “Only The Paranoid Survive.” He discusses “strategic inflection points,” his term for technology transformations. These are characterized by massive and fundamental change. Grove noted many institutions do not survive such change — not because they do not see it coming, but because the organization or culture is incapable of change. Success contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Journalism is in a huge transformational shift and few get it. Soon it won’t matter. Meanwhile, when you’re circling the drain, it is easier to blame fascists, nihilists, and capitalism.