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The Fate of the News in the Age of the Coronavirus

Can a fragile media ecosystem survive the pandemic?

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, Golden Cosmos

In 2009, as the economy struggled to rebound from the Great Recession, executives at the New York Times found themselves in a vigorous internal debate. They were trying to decide whether their content should go behind a paywall, making it available only to paying subscribers. There were compelling arguments on both sides. It wasn’t at all clear that people would be willing to pay for news; by implementing a paywall, the Times risked cannibalizing its enormous digital audience. But advertising revenue was plummeting, both online and in print, and the newspaper desperately needed new sources of income. To study the matter, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher at the time, convened internal committees and hired outside consultants. The Times’s leadership, meanwhile, took drastic steps to stabilize the company financially, borrowing two hundred and fifty million dollars from the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, trimming the size of the newsroom, and reducing a dividend paid to members of the Sulzberger family. In a final meeting of newsroom and business-department leaders, both sides presented their cases. Sulzberger cast his lot with those who favored charging for digital access.

On March 28, 2011, the Times introduced a “metered paywall.” People could read up to twenty articles a month for free; beyond that, they were required to purchase a subscription plan. In an article published in the Times just before the launch, Sulzberger and Janet Robinson, then the company’s chief executive officer, explained that they were thinking about the newspaper’s long-term future. “This is not a bet on this year,” Sulzberger told the writer, Jeremy W. Peters. “The question that remains to be answered,” Peters wrote, in turn, “is whether that bet pays off in 2015, 2020 or ever.”

The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers.

Nine years later, the gamble has clearly paid off. The Times now has more than five million subscribers, and its newsroom has swelled to more than seventeen hundred journalists—the largest it’s ever been. Numerous other legacy publications have since unveiled their own metered paywalls, including the Washington Post, in 2013, The New Yorker, in 2014, and The Atlanticlast year. Local newspapers across the country, struggling with a collapse of classified advertising, declining print circulation, and diminished ad revenue, followed suit, but with much less success. In recent years, the Times has grown steadily more restrictive with its paywall, granting fewer free articles to readers, as it seeks to convince even more of its readers to subscribe. (The New Yorker has adopted a similar strategy.)

The shift to paywalls has been a boon for quality journalism. Instead of chasing trends on search engines and social media, subscription-based publications can focus on producing journalism worth paying for, which has meant investments in original reporting of all kinds. A small club of élite publications has now found a sustainable way to support its journalism, through readers instead of advertisers. The Times and the Post, in particular, have thrived in the Trump era. So have subscription-driven startups, such as The Information, which covers the tech industry and charges three hundred and ninety-nine dollars a year. Meanwhile, many of the free-to-read outlets still dependent on ad revenue—including former darlings of the digital-media revolution, such as BuzzFeed, Vice, HuffPost, Mic, Mashable, and the titles under Vox Media—have labored to find viable business models.

Many of these companies attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in venture funding, and built sizable newsrooms. Even so, they’ve struggled to succeed as businesses, in part because Google and Facebook take in the bulk of the revenue derived from digital advertising. Some sites have been forced to shutter; others have slashed their staffs and scaled back their journalistic ambitions. There are free digital news sites that continue to attract outsized audiences: CNN and Fox News, for instance, each draw well over a hundred million visitors a month. But the news on these sites tends to be commodified. Velocity is the priority, not complexity and depth.

A robust, independent press is widely understood to be an essential part of a functioning democracy. It helps keep citizens informed; it also serves as a bulwark against the rumors, half-truths, and propaganda that are rife on digital platforms. It’s a problem, therefore, when the majority of the highest-quality journalism is behind a paywall. In recent weeks, recognizing the value of timely, fact-based news during a pandemic, the TimesThe Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other publications—including The New Yorker—have lowered their paywalls for portions of their coronavirus coverage. But it’s unclear how long publishers will stay committed to keeping their paywalls down, as the state of emergency stretches on. The coronavirus crisis promises to engulf every aspect of society, leading to widespread economic dislocations and social disruptions that will test our political processes and institutions in ways far beyond the immediate public-health threat. With the misinformation emanating from the Trump White House, the need for reliable, widely-accessible information and facts is more urgent than ever. Yet the economic shutdown created by the spread of covid-19 promises to decimate advertising revenue, which could doom more digital news outlets and local newspapers.

It’s easy to underestimate the information imbalance in American society. After all, “information” has never felt more easily available. A few keyboard strokes on an Internet search engine instantly connects us to unlimited digital content. On Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media platforms, people who might not be intentionally looking for news encounter it, anyway. And yet the apparent ubiquity of news and information is misleading. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly one in five American newspapers closed; in that time, print newsrooms have shed nearly half of their employees. Digital-native publishers employ just a fraction of the diminished number of journalists who still remain at legacy outlets, and employment in broadcast-TV newsrooms trails that of newspapers. On some level, news is a product manufactured by journalists. Fewer journalists means less news. The tributaries that feed the river of information have been drying up. There are a few mountain springs of quality journalism; most sit behind a paywall.

A report released last year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism maps the divide that is emerging among news readers. The proportion of people in the United States who pay for online news remains small: just sixteen per cent. Those readers tend to be wealthier, and are more likely to have college degrees; they are also significantly more likely to find news trustworthy. Disparities in the level of trust that people have in their news diets, the data suggests, are likely driven by the quality of the news they are consuming.

In the book “Breaking News,” published in 2018, Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, describes contentious arguments at the newspaper over whether to impose a paywall. Rusbridger writes that he and others who opposed charging for digital access worried “about the best information being restricted to those who could pay for it, while the rest fed on scraps.” He recalls a dinner that he attended in 2016, at the Savoy Hotel, in London, hosted by the Times, at which Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, shared his concern about “the new reality in which 98 per cent of Americans were now excluded from the NYT’s journalism and might well have to make do with substandard information.” Rusbridger summarizes the dilemma: “In a world of almost limitless information, the best would be available only to the more affluent. The rest of America would make do with an ocean of free stuff; some true, some fake.” (The Guardian, which is one of the world’s most popular English-language news destinations, is owned by the Scott Trust, which was set up to insure its independence in perpetuity; it remains free of charge.)

Recently, Ben Smith and Lydia Polgreen, the editors-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and HuffPost, respectively, announced that they were stepping down—Smith to write a media column for the Times, Polgreen to become the head of content for the podcasting company Gimlet Media. Their decisions, announced within days of each other, seemed like an inflection point for the industry. During her tenure at HuffPost, which is free to read, Polgreen shifted its three-hundred-person newsroom away from aggregation and user-generated content and toward more original reporting. At BuzzFeed News, which is also ad-supported, Smith led a two-hundred-person newsroom and built a large investigative team, reporters from which were twice honored as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Despite attracting tens of millions of readers, both outlets had come under significant financial pressure. In 2019, BuzzFeed laid off fifteen per cent of its staff; the same year, HuffPost’s owner, Verizon Media, carried out a seven-per-cent reduction across all of its properties. (It also owns AOL, Yahoo!, and TechCrunch.)

Polgreen told me that her distress at the quality of news available to much of the public had contributed to her decision, three years ago, to quit a masthead position at the Times and take over HuffPost from its founder, Arianna Huffington. “One of the biggest reasons that I left the Times and came to HuffPost was, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, thinking that the kind of inequality that we see expressed in so many parts of society was also being expressed in media,” she said. “These legacy news organizations—their core audience are the wealthiest, best-informed, most educated, most spoiled-for-choice news consumers.” Polgreen said she wanted to work on digital news for “people who were never going to become subscribers of the New York Times.”

Last year, Polgreen published an op-ed in the Guardian warning of the threat posed by “the collapse of the information ecosystem.” In her piece, she urges advertisers to consider the ways in which they contribute to its destruction; they might, she suggests, buy ads “on platforms that slow rather than increase the pace of information ecosystem collapse.” A company, therefore, might decide that a portion of its marketing budget should be reserved specifically for high-quality news sites, as opposed to digital-advertising networks managed by Google or Facebook. “The withdrawal of advertising dollars would be the single most powerful way to change the practices of companies that contribute most powerfully to the information ecosystem crisis,” she writes.

An altogether different solution for sustaining journalism is the nonprofit model. ProPublica, an investigative newsroom founded in 2007, now employs more than a hundred people. The Texas Tribune, a successful local news operation, and the Marshall Project, which focusses on criminal-justice issues, are also nonprofits. The collective audience for nonprofit journalism, however, is still relatively limited. Last year, the Salt Lake Tribune received approval from the Internal Revenue Service to become the first legacy newspaper in the United States to shift to nonprofit status. The Tribune’s owner and publisher, Paul Huntsman—a son of the late billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr.—initiated the move. The ownership of local newspapers has become increasingly concentrated; hedge funds and private-equity firms have begun scooping up papers as distressed assets. The consolidation makes it less likely that the Tribune’s decision will be replicated on a large scale.

In his new book, “Democracy Without Journalism?,” Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, argues that the commercial model that sustained newspapers for a hundred and fifty years is beyond repair. “Without a viable news media system, democracy is reduced to an unattainable ideal,” he writes. Pickard makes the case for a more robust public media system—an American version of the BBC—that could “provide a baseline for reliable information and act as a safety net when the market fails to support adequate levels of news production.” (NPR and PBS get only a small portion of their budgets from government grants.) It is a persuasive argument, albeit one that would require a sizable financial commitment from the federal government—Pickard proposes thirty billion dollars. The outlay “may seem large, but relative to the scale and type of problem—a first-order need on par with public health, a standing military, and other non-negotiable expenses, it is actually a modest proposal,” he writes.

For now, those concerned about widespread access to quality journalism can only hope that the digital-media industry somehow finds its way. The economic cataclysm caused by the coronavirus pandemic promises to make this even more difficult. In recent years, some digital publishers have shown signs of sustainability. Vox Media, which includes the explanatory journalism site Vox and also Eater, Recode, and Curbed, is reportedly profitable. (In September, the company purchased New York magazine.) Politico, which saw its revenue surge after Donald Trump’s election, has now been in business for more than a decade. Axios, founded in 2016 by a group that decamped from Politico, has also found success.

Both HuffPost and BuzzFeed News have worked to generate income beyond advertising. They have launched membership programs, through which readers can support their journalism. (A similar membership effort at the Guardian, which began last year, helped the newspaper report its first operating profit in two decades.) HuffPost has experimented with live events. Last year, BuzzFeed News hired Samantha Henig, formerly of the Times, as its executive editor, charging her with building out new revenue streams for the organization.

Both outlets benefit from being ensconced in broadly diversified media corporations: HuffPost’s owner, Verizon Media, is a subsidiary of the telecommunications giant; though its news division continues to lose money, BuzzFeed over-all was reportedly profitable in the second half of 2019, thanks to returns from e-commerce, video, licensing fees, and various forms of advertising. But the broad economic shutdown from the spread of the coronavirus will cause many of these revenue streams, and others, to dry up. On Wednesday, in an internal memo to BuzzFeed staff, Jonah Peretti, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer, announced salary reductions for most employees ranging from five per cent to twenty-five per cent. Peretti also said that he would forgo his salary for the duration of the crisis. “We are in a better position than many others, but we are also in a new world that will put serious stress on all industries,” he wrote. “Though we were well on track to be profitable this year, the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy will almost certainly cause the company to lose money, even as we take aggressive action to control costs.”

Over the coming weeks and months, as the covid-19 pandemic continues on its destructive path, it will alter the fabric of the country. Already, the disease has exposed the fragility of the American health-care system, highlighting its weak points, showing us where it is easily overwhelmed. It will do the same for other systems, including the media ecosystem. The question at this point is how much of it can survive, and how it might be rebuilt.


Michael Luo is the editor of newyorker.com.