The media industry saw several waves of high-profile layoffs in 2023. We had layoffs in January, Gawker shut down in February, Buzzfeed cut 15 percent of its staff in April, Condé Nast laid off staff (including at the New Yorker), NPR cut ten percent of its workforce, and Vox Media laid off four percent of its staff on November 30, after a prior round of layoffs. Last year also closed with a bunch of media layoffs, which came on the heels of pandemic layoffs, so it’s been a brutal few years.Matthew Yglesias, “Another brutal year for the media industry,” Slow Boring, 12 December 2023
Yglesias, who left Vox in 2020 and started a column at Substack which now has over 100,000 subscribers, thinks that the problem isn’t the media’s leftward drift but rather that few journalists understand business models:
On the one hand, people who don’t like the product for various ideological reasons want to attribute any economic struggles to their (often somewhat imagined) political beefs with writers. On the other hand, because the average person working in journalism is to the left of the average American, there’s a lot of internal disdain for the idea of taking basic business issues seriously.Yglesias, “Another brutal year
But there is another way to look at the question altogether! Journalists can survive without understanding how the media business model works — so long as it works. The trouble is, the traditional media model doesn’t and can’t work any more. It is a top down model where powerful media organizations decide what the news is.
About left vs. right, in a healthy media environment, journalists who were too far left or right to connect with typical readers would slowly be replaced by scribes who were more in touch. The reason that isn’t happening now is stagnation.
Legacy media are stagnating and dying because we live in a media environment that is increasingly bottom up. News is determined more and more by the collective effort of independent social media users, bloggers, and journalists pushing items to the virtual “front page,” by the power of numbers, driven by attention alone.
Top down vs. bottom up
No surprise then, Axios reports that social media traffic to the top news sites is declining steeply.
Characteristically, Axios media trends writer Sara Fischer worries that “Efforts to reach voters with trusted information are becoming more difficult as tech platforms lean into viral trends, instead of quality news.” Her worries are misplaced. As legacy journalism devolves into AI-generated babble even at venerated media like Sports Illustrated, there is no special reason to regard such media as purveyors of trustworthy information (as opposed to merely “trusted” information).
Indeed, ordinary human experience is increasingly proving a more reliable guide than they are. For example, mid-last month, the New York Times admitted the immense harm to schooling that the COVID lockdowns that it advocated so strenuously had caused. But vast numbers of people had sensed or known about the harm for many months before the Times’s admission made it “news that’s fit to print.”
Should the government fund legacy media?
To save them, a top journalism school, Medill at Northwestern University proposes, essentially, the Canadian model, where the federal government funds the news media. The kind of quality the taxpayer will be buying is an article unto itself… You would be as well off with smoke signals.
The real lessons from Canada are quite different: At a federal government hearing to develop a framework for supporting legacy media, very successful Canadian YouTuber J. J. McCullough — with nearly a million subscribers — had to painfully explain to the hearing commissioner that nothing the legacy media can do will really save them.
That’s because they’re top down in the bottom up world where he thrives.
They are called “legacy” media but, in truth, no media can just be legacies. If they are no longer important for the transmission of news, they are not media. They are no longer needed institutions. A key difficulty is that, struggling to survive, they no longer value freedom of the media the way they used to. Because they themselves cling to powerful government and corporate interests in order to survive, they have so much less use for such freedom. They will prove happy to help suppress the bottom up media that are replacing them.
Podcast host Konstantin Kisin summed it up recently, “The legacy media is dying for a reason, they can not be saved or reformed. Let’s stop complaining about them and start building the media empires of the future ourselves.”
It’s actually already happening. We’ll take a look tomorrow at one such thriving platform, Substack, where star journalists can make a good living while reaching their readers directly.
Next: How the new bottom up media are replacing legacy mainstream media
You may also wish to read: Five key ways media have changed in the last 35 years. Major media no longer really represent a vast number of average audience members. Increasingly, the audience is fragmenting as people select their own individually crafted news streams. We must accept responsibility for the streams we create.