The Demise of Newspapers and Independent Journalism


            Atlanta             Our daily paper in New Orleans gets thinner and thinner.  In the latest reduction, the formerly four sections have now been combined into two sections.  Metro is just another flip of the page from the front, and the Living section finds its way around Sports.  It may be skinny and offer little but the basics and the hijinks in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and maybe the nearby parishes, but it’s better than nothing I guess, as papers continue to close at a fast clip around the country.  When people speculate about the growth of “fake” news everywhere, it’s worth remembering that part of the problem is “no news” in so many places now.  When no one is looking and listening, strange things can grow wild.

One hope that seems to be fading fast as well is the growth in many big cities and some regions of online independent journalism.  Many may have hoped this would work as a supplement to daily papers, allowing longer form journalism and investigations less responsive to local advertisers.  Sometimes they extended the reach of the remaining papers through partnerships and joint-share arrangements.  Too often, they started becoming less supplements and more substitutes, which was a role they were ill-equipped to handle and not designed to fill.  Most, if not all, of these efforts were funded by philanthropy and in some cases investors, either public-spirited or self-interested in what might be a new model.

The jury is increasingly coming in on this model, and it’s not encouraging.  Subscriber models have worked to a certain degree, but from what I can tell, no better than the subscriber models for newsprint, and often worse.  The newsprint demographic skews older and the online skews younger, but on the local level, neither is growing fast enough to assure sustainability.  Newsprint still gets the bigger local advertisers, and online gets some, but with a harder to verify subscriber base, it’s a slog.  What’s good for the New York Times and other national papers might be one thing as their online numbers continue to swell, but it doesn’t transfer easily, and even the Washington Post is facing some cutbacks despite having access to Jeff Bezos’ deep pockets.

As for philanthropy, they may have helped set the salary range, dreams, and ambitions in the beginning, but it never lasts.  There’s always something newer and more exciting.  There’s never a permanent commitment.  Many of these efforts at independent journalism are folding or merging.  Mother Jones has now hooked up with the Center for Investigative Reporting.  The Center for Public Integrity is downsizing or looking for a combination.  Pro Publica may survive, but like the Times’ success, that may not be a model.

There are other disturbing real-life problems.  Some people are starting to realize that they allowed online easy pay subscriptions to hijack their personal finances.  There was a piece recently about someone who pared his list and then could finance buying a Tesla.  Every year I dutifully send my contribution to the Lens, our online news platform in New Orleans.  We partner with them at WAMF-LP and run their news summary, but to tell the truth I haven’t looked at their website for years.

None of this is good news for now or the future.