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Dog bites man – Columbia Journalism Review

If journalists are often told not to write “dog bites man” stories, the instruction is rarely literal. The New York Times reports, however, that this is exactly what happened at the LA Times last month when that paper’s owner, the billionaire medical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, expressed concerns about a story the paper was looking into involving dueling lawsuits, one of them aimed at a wealthy doctor and acquaintance of Soon-Shiong’s whose dog allegedly bit a woman at an LA park. (The doctor is suing the woman for extortion.) Per the New York Times, Soon-Shiong told Kevin Merida, then the top editor at the LA Times, that he didn’t think the paper should pursue the story, that he wanted to see a draft, and that he was prepared to fire any staffer who kept the draft from him. (Soon-Shiong described this account as “factually inaccurate”; a spokesperson said that he merely wanted the story to be “truthful” and “factual.”)

The reporting on Soon-Shiong was the latest increment in an unfolding tale of turmoil at the LA Times, at the core of which is a story that has, sadly, become dog bites man in the metaphorical sense in recent years: a mass layoff of journalists. Last week—following the departure of Merida, amid reported tensions with Soon-Shiong not only over reporting matters but the direction of the business, which is reportedly hemorrhaging money—the paper laid off at least a hundred and fifteen staffers. The Washington bureau was slashed, as my colleague Cameron Joseph reported last week, while more than half of those laid off overall were staffers of color, according to the paper’s union, including journalists who worked on “De Los,” a section focused on Latinos, and who covered other local ethnic communities. (Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez reports that staffers of color were disproportionately affected “in part because they are more likely to be young and hired recently.” The paper has pointed to seniority protections in its union contract; the union has disputed the paper’s account.) One laid-off staffer reported being let go over Zoom with no chance to ask questions; another reported receiving a certificate thanking him for his service “in 1st grade student of the month award form.” After the initial layoffs were executed, the paper’s union alleged that five more staffers had received layoff notices, but that it wasn’t clear if they were final. “We are stunned by the company’s capriciousness,” the union said.

The layoffs at the LA Times did not happen in a vacuum: since the turn of the year, at least seven other newsrooms have cut jobs, if not quite as many. NBC laid off between fifty and a hundred staffers. Condé Nast folded Pitchfork, its music magazine, into GQ and laid off at least twelve staffers in the process. (As Anna Wintour delivered the news, she reportedly did not take off her sunglasses.) Sports Illustrated laid off a large but unspecified proportion of its employees, amid suggestions that the whole staff could be at risk. Last week alone, Time magazine laid off around thirty staffers, National Geographic implemented layoffs, Business Insider cut twenty-two unionized staffers and others who weren’t unionized as part of an 8 percent staff reduction, and Forbes cut somewhere south of 3 percent of its staff. By my—conservative, and very incomplete—count of the numbers that are publicly available, all this adds up to a minimum of two hundred and thirty journalists who have been laid off so far in 2024. Already, this rough minimum total is very close to the monthly rate at which journalists were laid off last year, according to figures maintained by the employment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas—even though last year was a particularly terrible one for news layoffs and many observers didn’t expect this year to be as bad, in no small part because last year was so bad.

Not all media job losses are the same. Layoffs are different from buyouts; some of the companies that have shed jobs have cited shifting business priorities (and, in NBC’s case, are hiring in other areas); the gutting of Pitchfork offers its own particular lessons about the state of music criticism as a form of journalism; it’s not exactly clear what’s going on at Sports Illustrated, amid a rococo battle between different corporate parents over a licensing deal. Still, the scale of the losses points to a clear underpinning trend of financial turmoil, one that is depressingly familiar. Print, and its attendant advertising business, is still in decline, as is the digital advertising business; interest rates are high; readership and viewership are down (and, unlike in 2016, Trump doesn’t seem to be saving us this time); billionaire owners appear to be getting cold feet, at least about the scale of losses they’re willing to sustain. As always at times of huge media cuts, the word “brutal” has been thrown around a lot. It no longer seems strong enough.

Indeed, many observers seem to agree that even by dire recent standards, this is a moment of particular—and, perhaps, existential—peril for the news business, or large parts of it. “I honestly can’t recall a worse month for journalism (and I say this as an unemployed journalist),” David Mack, formerly of the now-shuttered BuzzFeed News, wrote last week. The Hollywood Reporter called this the worst crisis for the media since the 2008 financial crisis, while noting that expected job losses associated with the rise of generative artificial intelligence haven’t even hit yet. “The death of newspapers—and magazines and linear TV—has been oft-foretold and has not yet occurred,” the journalism professor Jeff Jarvis told CNN. “The fall might be coming now.” A headline on a piece in Politico asked, “Is the Journalism Death Spasm Finally Here?”

Perhaps mindful of Betteridge’s Law, Jack Shafer, the author of the piece (the headline on which has since been changed), reached a more measured conclusion: “It would be far too dramatic,” he wrote, “to extrapolate from the disastrous week that journalism itself is dying.” Certain national newspapers, like the New York Times, are in rude health, as are a few major regional titles, like the Boston Globe; a number of nonprofit local newsrooms continue to thrive, as do various niche publications and individual writers on platforms like Substack. Across the US, projects aimed at reimagining community-centered local news beyond the traditional format of the newspaper are going strong, too. And yet, as Shafer suggests, the decline of traditional media businesses is undeniable. This is particularly true in what the Times columnist Ezra Klein recently referred to as journalism’s collapsing “middle,” or the vast space between the biggest outlets and individual authors on Substack and elsewhere. 

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As the recent layoffs have hit—and I’ve watched talented journalist after talented journalist blast out news of their dismissal on social media—I, too, have felt more bleak than usual about the state of the industry. More than anything, though, the layoffs exacerbate trends that have long been evident: the disproportionate precarity of early-career journalists and journalists of color (and particularly those who are both), the false hope of the billionaire savior model, and, most fundamentally, the profound failure of the market to sustain journalism at the scale society needs. None of this excuses media bosses’ individual decisions or their capriciousness in executing them—layoffs, and how they are implemented, are always a choice, as are the (often poor) strategic decisions that make layoffs more likely, inflated executive pay, and so many other aspects of running a media business—but the fact of market failure remains, even if it’s relatively rare to hear it described in such explicit terms. (When I searched Google News this morning for recent articles on “journalism” and “market failure,” I found no relevant results.)

As we reported in depth in our Business Model issue last year, we have choices, too, in how we collectively move forward from here, beyond hand-wringing about the inevitability of decline. And, as Victor Pickard, an academic who has long warned compellingly of market decline in the media business, put it last week, the recent struggles even of billionaire-owned outlets “should bring further clarity to the fact that we need systemic (esp public & nonprofit) alternatives to commercial media.” Building this future won’t be easy, or a silver bullet: various nonprofits have recently made cuts, too, and neither the nonprofit nor the public pathway guarantees greater newsroom diversity or other essential goals. Still, the idea of a public pathway, at least, hasn’t really been tried in the US; not at great scale, at any rate. Indeed, the idea of it has long been taboo among journalists leery of government meddling in their work.

There are signs that this taboo is starting to weaken. Recently, after members of Congress wrote to Soon-Shiong expressing concern about the (then still impending) cuts at the LA Times, Soon-Shiong wrote back that lawmakers themselves should do more to ensure that a robust free press survives. He appeared to be asking principally for Congress to compel tech giants to pay news companies to use their content, as has happened in Canada and Australia, but lawmakers in both DC and various states have already debated, and in some cases implemented, ideas that would funnel money directly or indirectly to newsrooms, including via various tax breaks and scholarship funds for young journalists. (California is among the states with a version of the latter scheme.)

Recently, a panel of lawmakers and industry leaders filed a report recommending that the state legislature in Illinois consider similar policies. The report largely passed under the national media radar amid the terrible news about layoffs, but it was significant—according to David Greising, writing in the Chicago Tribune, the calls for state intervention in the media business are the first of their nature in Illinois history. Steve Stadelman, a Democratic state lawmaker who himself used to be a local-TV journalist, is now planning to sponsor some of the report’s recommendations in the legislature. “I spent most of my life and career in news. I was skeptical of government involvement in news,” Stadelman said, according to Capitol News Illinois, but “I think we’re at a point where there are ways that this can be done carefully and thoughtfully.”

Other notable stories:

  • Last month, the New York Times published a major story detailing Hamas’s use of sexual violence as a weapon of war against Israelis—but the story’s claims have since been scrutinized, both inside and outside the paper, so much so that The Daily, the paper’s flagship podcast, froze a planned episode based on the reporting, The Intercept’s Daniel Boguslaw and Ryan Grim report. A revised script for the episode “remains the subject of significant controversy and has yet to be aired,” the pair report. “The producers and the paper of record find themselves in a jam: run a version that hews closely to the previously published story and risk republishing serious mistakes, or publish a heavily toned-down version, raising questions about whether the paper still stands by the original report.” (The Times said it doesn’t comment on ongoing reporting.)
  • On Friday, a jury in Manhattan ordered Donald Trump to pay E. Jean Carroll, a longtime writer and advice columnist, over eighty-three million dollars in a defamation case stemming from Trump’s commentary on allegations of rape that Carroll has made against him; the award dwarfed a previous, five-million-dollar payout that a jury demanded of Trump in a separate case involving Carroll last year, and included a large proportion of punitive damages after the jury ruled that Trump had acted maliciously. Over the weekend, Carroll gave her first interview since the ruling, to Benjamin Weiser of the Times, and promised to do “something good” with the money—after buying some luxury dog food for her Great Pyrenees and her pit bull.
  • Late last year, the Eugene Weekly, an alt-weekly in Oregon, was forced to lay off its entire staff after falling victim to an embezzlement scheme. (The paper said it discovered that a staffer used the paper’s bank account to pay themselves nearly a hundred thousand dollars; the staffer has been fired and local police are investigating.) The paper is now planning to return to print early next month, and eventually to rehire its staff, after an online campaign and contributions from the community helped it raise around a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. “I thought it was hard to run a paper,” Camilla Mortensen, the editor, told the Associated Press. “It’s much harder to resurrect a paper.” 
  • In international media news, Voice of America spoke with journalists in Azerbaijan about a spate of arrests targeting reporters in the country, which some attribute to an effort by those in power to distract the press from covering corruption ahead of elections next month. (I wrote about some of the arrests last month.) Elsewhere, CNN’s affiliated partner network in the Philippines (which is operated by a local company under a licensing deal) is shutting down this week. And Russia again extended the pretrial detention of the jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, through March 30.
  • And—after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for a federal probe of ZYN, a brand of nicotine pouches, and the far-right Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene responded by calling for a “ZYNsurrection”—Semafor’s Dave Weigel explains how the product became a cause célèbre in right-wing media. “There, it’s seen not as a vice, but as a work-enhancer—addictive, but well worth the trade-off,” he writes, of an ecosystem in which “medically questionable” products have become popular in recent years.

ICYMI: The Death of the Washington Bureau

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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