We’re seeing the destruction part of Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction” at work in the news media. Now we need more of the creative part. But this creativity should be within a market of individuals interacting voluntarily, not within the cronyist political “marketplace” of force. Free and independent media require nothing less.
The basic longstanding story is of newspapers losing advertising dollars to internet sites, first to online classifieds, then to internet companies led by Google and Facebook. “And then COVID-19 came in like a wrecking ball” to knock down much of the remaining ad base, as Samantha Johnston puts the point. She publishes the Aspen Times and manages Colorado Mountain News Media West.
Multimedia producer Amy Brothers expressed on Twitter the pain shared by many journalists. She wrote on April 17, “Today was my last day at the Denver Post after 5.5 years. I found out I was getting laid off while on assignment. I couldn’t cry, you can’t get masks wet and it’s dangerous to touch your face during this pandemic.” She said she felt sadness, anger, and frustration, even as she strove for gratitude. As of April 26, the Post continued to list Brothers as an author, touting her Emmy-winning work.
Brothers also touched the angst of many news readers: “It’s the middle of one of the most significant news events of our lifetime. I have so many leads/ideas and now those stories won’t get told.” Fewer journalists means less journalism.
The same day (April 17), the Denver Newspaper Guild released a statement about broader layoffs and furloughs at the Post. Although the Guild remarked, “we consider ourselves partners with management and Alden Global Capital ownership,” the Guild’s bitterness is unmistakable: “We can’t help but wonder if this blow might have been somewhat cushioned had the company better prepared for lean times while making some of the highest profits in the industry.”
It’s not just the Post, of course. Other Colorado news outlets affected by layoffs, furloughs, or pay cuts include Westword, the Durango Herald, the Aspen Daily News, Boulder Weekly, and Niwot’s Courier. The Poynter Institute published a lengthy list of affected papers, TV and radio stations, magazines, and online publications.
But if the internet is partly destroying news media, maybe the internet also can continue to help save journalism. Crisis is opportunity, goes the Chinese-inspired expression. The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday puts the point. If “tech giants suck up the lion’s share of online revenue,” as Westword’s Patricia Calhoun worries, the internet also enables journalists to run leaner, less-expensive operations with powerful new tools for generating and sharing content.
The cornavirus has made many people more appreciative of the critical work that journalists do. Tim Armstrong, formerly of AOL, made the point: “For the first time in history, you’re probably going to have the highest point of media usage in the history of the United States and the lowest point of advertising in the U.S.” Certainly advertising has taken a big hit.
This combination—more news consumers and fewer news advertisers—suggests to me the obvious alternative of mostly or totally cutting out advertisers and moving squarely to reader-funded and charity-funded business models.
Impossible, you say? The Colorado Sun is among the publications proving it can be done. (Disclosure: I used to write a column for the Sun.) Editor Larry Ryckman notes that the online-only Sun “has seen a surge of new members since March 1. We appreciate the vote of confidence in us and our Public Benefit model.” In a fundraising letter, Ryckman touted the publication’s 28 awards from the Top of the Rockies contest. He pointed out, “The Sun staff is just 13 full-time journalists (and our amazing freelance friends).”
Ryckman, formerly with the Denver Post, is no fan of that paper’s current owners, Alden Global Capital. Discussing another Alden property, the Greeley Tribune, Ryckman remarked, “Instead of paying their employees more and serving communities, they [the people at Alden] continue strip mining” newspapers. Elsewhere he refers to Alden as “shameless vultures.” His views are typical. Chuck Plunkett became famous as the “architect of the Denver Post Rebellion.” While working for the paper, Plunkett published a scathing editorial of Alden before quitting under pressure.
I share the dim view of Alden. As much as I sympathize with the journalists still working for Alden, I personally have decided not to contribute so much as one thin cent to the Post so long as Alden owns it. Personally, I will contribute funds only to publications that do not place their articles behind paywalls (this includes the Sun and Complete Colorado) and that that do not accept government funding (this rules out Colorado Public Radio).
However, people who castigate Alden should bear a few things in mind. Alden controls the Post only because Dean Singleton sold his controlling stake to Alden. Other parties remain free to offer to buy the Post from Alden. No one is chaining Alden journalists to their desks. They continue to work for Alden, presumably, because they can’t find a better position elsewhere. And ultimately Alden can get away with firing and furloughing journalists only because the Post’s readers keep providing the newspaper with subscription revenues and with eyes valuable to advertisers. Readers’ choices drive Alden’s strategies.
I am a capitalist, meaning I support free markets in which people interact voluntarily and government intervenes only to protect people’s rights. That doesn’t mean I approve of everything particular capitalists do. Nor does it mean that I discredit exchanges driven by something other than financial profits. I regard formal and informal charity and crowdfunding efforts as within the scope of capitalism.
The key is that transactions should be voluntary. This is especially important for journalism. After all, a major role of journalists is to cast a penetrating eye on the deeds of politicians and to hold government accountable. On this point I cannot hope to out-write one of the titans of editorial journalism in Colorado, Vincent Carroll. He explains, “It’s far healthier for journalists to stand on their own, fully supported through voluntary relationships—whether through advertising, subscriptions, individual donations or philanthropy—rather than rely on money taken from people who in many cases would never have offered it on their own.”
I was heartened, then, to read of Governor Jared Polis’s skepticism of tax-funded journalism. During his April 17 media conference, Polis said, “We have a free and independent press. That is hard to reconcile with government assistance.”
With freedom comes responsibility. People who value vibrant, free, and independent news media have an opportunity to help shape the future of journalism. From the readers’ perspective, the solution is simple: Put your money where your news is.