The public’s love-hate relationship with the media has tipped toward just hate in recent years, but professional news media, especially local news, are foundational to democracy. America’s constitutional framers took the media’s role as informers and educators of the public so seriously, they not only carved out freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights, but also subsidized the circulation of periodicals in the newborn republic, a federal practice that continued until relatively recently. The news business’s slow death spiral should alarm us across political divides.

Several crises are besieging the media simultaneously: People are increasingly dropping news from their information diets, ad-dollar-reliant business models continue to dry up, outlets and websites are closing, and the rise of artificial intelligence threatens to put yet more pressure on human newsgathering. The world isn’t going to end anytime soon, but mass media as we know it just might.

Consider the evidence: While the United States is enjoying a strong post-pandemic recovery and a surge in job growth, nearly every sector of the news media is taking a beating. The industry shed 20,000 jobs last year, with local news outlets hardest hit: An average of 2.5 newspapers closed each week, compared to two a week in 2022. Journalism’s heavy-hitters also took plenty of blows, with layoffs taking place at NPR, MSNBC, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Vox, Buzzfeed, and others. 

Vice News—the once-influential, freewheeling Gen-X hipster mag that adopted a scolding “everything-is-problematic” persona once urban Millennials took over in the 2010s—died an ignoble death in February. Sports Illustrated, seemingly omnipresent a few decades ago, recently spit out poorly written “pink slime” articles by fake reporters created by generative AI before laying off nearly its entire staff. And in a move that bitterly sums up the state of things, media mogul Jimmy Finkelstein just killed The Messenger

The professional messengers still standing are panicking, and with good reason. Yet big journalism’s bosses and gatekeepers seem unwilling to meet the moment. Last month, I was a panelist at a journalism conference at Columbia University to lament the sad state of the news biz in the lead-up to the 2024 election. Insiders there insisted on wagging fingers at the usual suspects: Google and Facebook for cannibalizing their content, billionaires with midlife crises who buy newspapers like they might a new Lambo and just as easily discard them, or Fox News for polluting the news ecosystem with dumbed-down and partisan-first content. 

There is plenty of truth there, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

The thing killing quality journalism, even if it is incredibly obvious and boring to say, is in our pockets. Smartphones and our endless parade of screens have flattened all news, entertainment, and information into the digital sludge of “content” to be scrolled through mindlessly, with algorithms tailored to our desires on the way to the next brief dopamine hit. Those appetites rarely get satiated by nuanced coverage of the economy or a bone-dry recap of a city-council meeting. 

As Kyle Chayka writes in the smart new book, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, the content we eat up on our devices is the equivalent of comfort food, “the least ambiguous, least disruptive, and perhaps least meaningful pieces of culture” that “embraces nothingness, that blankets and soothes rather than challenges or surprises.” It is no coincidence that since the iPhone conquered the world, attention spans are shorter, literacy rates are plummeting, and people pay for Netflix subscriptions over The New York Times by a rate of 25 to 1. 

Surely, there is still some elbow room in that metaverse for news, but it may not be the slop that most outlets are selling. The dirty secret is that even as most corporate media faces an existential crisis, Spotify just handed Joe Rogan a new $250 million contract, and the number of paid Substack subscribers has shot up to 2 million, roughly equivalent to the Washington Post’s, up from 1 million in 2021.

As if the technological threat weren’t grave enough, regional and national outlets also have a trust problem. Trust in all institutions keeps waning, but it is worse for the media: Only 31 percent of Americans trust it to report the news fairly and accurately. Local news is more trusted, with 45 percent trusting such outlets, according to a 2019 Knight Foundation survey. It’s no wonder—small business stories, weather, sports, and community events aren’t politically divisive, and the reporters who work there are your neighbors and members of your community. You can literally walk into a physical office and strike up a conversation with them. You can’t say the same for Rachel Maddow. 

“Journalists seem content to mostly write articles for one another.”

Today, the Fourth Estate has become more Democratic Party-friendly through attrition. As smaller outlets continue shrinking and disappearing, the void is filled with those concentrated in big urban metropolises. Naturally, journalists living in cities like New York and Washington are bound to reflect the views and interests of those around them. Thus, since 2016, coverage has kept drifting toward a pro-Democratic Party consensus, with reporters content with serving as lap dogs for their political party of choice, rather than a watchdog for the nation. That fact is most evident on social media, where conversations are hermetically sealed from most of the outside world, and journalists seem content to mostly write articles for one another. 

Rather than calling for more trustworthy institutions reflecting a national consensus, too many in the mainstream are responding the same way they have since 2016: by demanding more diversity and more overtly anti-Trump rhetoric to match the combative tenor of right-wing media—the equivalent of cutting off their nose to spite their face. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, for example, has essentially called for news media’s equivalent of martial law due to Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies. “To fix this, you would have to call a halt to regular journalism, suspend your routines,” he said. Can’t we just call Trump a fascist liar in every headline?

Other talking heads keep reflexively calling for the DEI-ing of newsrooms ad infinitum. This made more sense a decade or two ago. But in 2024, newsrooms that were once dominated by  white males, often from working- and middle-class backgrounds, are now broadly racially diverse, gender-neutral, highly educated, and upper middle class. That’s progress-ish. But because DEI departments aren’t hanging signs to say “Mission Accomplished” and going home, more news outlets are overcorrecting and going the way of the American Journalism Project, which now brags that it is 76 percent female and 48 percent people of color. 

The grand DEI theory of the news we have been sold is that people of color didn’t trust or “feel seen” by newsrooms in the past. Diversify the media, and those missing news consumers would come. Yet the audience for hyper-woke NPR—where 78 percent of all hires in 2022 were people of color—is still mostly just wealthy, educated, white people. As it turns out, black people prefer local newspapers to national outlets and actually trust their news more than white people. 

The moment of the Columbia journalism conference I remember most occurred just offstage. During a lunch break, an older black woman, a member of the public, crashed the table of panelists I was sitting at to share her political musings. But the author of a book called Antiracist Journalism and a DEI executive studiously ignored her. Maybe it’s because she said she supported Trump for president (“Obama and Biden, I’ve met them both, they didn’t do anything for us”). 

It’s illuminating because, for decades, conservative partisan media accused the press of being liberal and elitist. It was an exaggeration back then. But now it’s as if they have finally wishcasted it into existence. Yet journalists and their institutions are determined to continue on their current trajectory. Even if it means the death of their institutions. There’s an old saying in the news business: If it bleeds, it leads. 

Ryan Zickgraf is a Compact columnist based in Atlanta.


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