Anyone paying attention during the last decade is familiar with the decline of American journalism. Today, what would have seemed a ludicrous proposition just ten or fifteen years ago seems like a distinct possibility: America’s major newspapers may disappear. I don’t just mean the end of print news—which will almost certainly happen—I mean the collapse of news operations altogether. A precipitous drop in print circulations, combined with the inability to sufficiently monetize the add revenue needed for large newsgathering operations, is making the current model of print and digital media financially unsustainable—no matter how many layoffs and furloughs occur.
Several years ago, while I was working on a project about homelessness in San Francisco, I had some frank conversations with a few employees from the San Francisco Chronicle who doubted the paper could stay afloat for even another ten years. At this point, only the deep pockets of the Hearst Corporation keep the San Francisco Chronicle afloat; the paper loses nearly a million dollars a week! Sometime in the near future the possibility exists that perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in America may not have a major newspaper.
A 2009 Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism report entitled “The State of the News Media” is a perfect summary of the sad state of national journalism at the end of the century’s first decade. Pew found that twenty percent of journalism jobs disappeared between 2001 and 2009. By the beginning of 2010, that number had shot up to twenty five percent. Things can and will get worse for the newspaper industry.
Despite all the hand wringing about the future of journalism, very few books on the subject attempt to find a realistic solution to the industry’s current quandary. One of the few books that goes beyond detailing the moribund state of the news is The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will begin the World Again. Written by radio personality Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, the book attempts to chart a new course for American journalism—one rooted in its distant past. The authors see the historical relationship between the early press and the federal government as a possible signpost for the future of journalism: public subsidization of the news. McChesney and Nichols call attention to the long and often problematical history between corporatism and journalism, stating that the “profit motive” can no longer fuel journalism—perhaps it shouldn’t have in the first place. Regardless of one’s view of the book, the current economic paradigm driving newspapers is about to run out of gas.
Budget cuts and retrenchment have especially grim consequences for already journalistically underserved Rust Belt cities. Currently inadequate coverage of pressing urban issues could soon change to nonexistent coverage. The Plain Dealer has already resorted to furloughs and pay cuts in order to keep printing seven days a week. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette lost twenty million dollars in 2006. Additionally, the size and scope of newspapers have shrunk, and local news sections are smaller with less (if any) investigative stories. Clearly, we can no longer rely on the traditional media to cover and investigate the most pertinent issues in our urban centers. So what can be done?
Next week, a new non-profit news organization, The Bay Citizen will come online. Covering the San Francisco Bay Area, The Citizen will focus on six “civic beats” in what could be a groundbreaking effort to fill the rapidly growing news hole in the bay area. This new venture is being funded by a variety sources and is being billed as a “combination news organization and community resource.” Featuring a role call of experienced journalists who cut their teeth at traditional newspapers, The Bay Citizen might chart a new path for communities left adrift by understaffed and solely profit oriented news organizations.
I believe the questions that Rust Belt citizens, bloggers, entrepreneurs, and community activists should be asking themselves are simple: How will our communities be covered in the future? Will the seemingly last resort option of community journalism be the answer? Can non-profit news work in the Rust Belt? Perhaps a regional meeting of the minds, something akin to what has been happening in the blogging and tech worlds regionally, is called for. If the voices and concerns of our citizens are to be heard, and if we want the economic and developmental agendas of our regions to be front and center in Washington, we must face the reality of the declining state of journalism.
This post was contributed by Sean Posey, a Youngstown-based photographer and graduate student.