For-Profit Journalism is Unsustainable

Under capitalism, practically every public good is subject to the profit motive. Profit-seeking has hollowed out American journalism, making it unsustainable and untrustworthy.

The industry of journalism is in a state of terminal crisis. Since 2005, more than a quarter of all local newspapers in the United States have closed down. Many of the ones still around are shells of their former selves, producing vastly diminished content and leaving the local communities that rely on them as “news deserts.” Digital media is dominated by shallow clickbait, sensationalized coverage, and hyperpartisanship. Simultaneously, trust in media among the American public has never been lower. 

All of these worrying trends share the same progenitor: the profit motive. Like with every other thing of value in a capitalist society, the factor that determines whether a journalistic endeavor succeeds or fails is its performance in a competitive market. And like with fast food and Marvel movies, the profitability of a news outlet has little to do with whether it serves the public interest. 

When news outlets shape their content to maximize clicks, allow themselves to be bought and gutted by private equity companies, or subject their employees to unreasonable working conditions, they are doing precisely what the logic of the market tells them to do. When profit or perish are the only two available options, most publishers will choose the former no matter what compromises and sacrifices—to the quality of journalism, or to their own employees—they must make to get there. But choices that confer short-term profit also tend to wreak havoc on the journalistic landscape. The imperative that journalism be profitable is in fundamental conflict with its other functions in a democratic society. 

As media professor Gerald Baldasty at the University of Washington points out, “The media are a private business, but they are also cloaked with immense social responsibility.” This is, of course, a commonality in American society: many things that serve immensely important social functions, like healthcare and transportation, have been outsourced to for-profit enterprises as well. And given the manifold inefficiencies and inequalities wrought by the profit motive in those systems, we should not be surprised when journalism succumbs to them as well. 

Three recent cases show how the profit demands of the American media system force companies to make financial and management decisions that damage the quality of their editorial content, the conditions of labor for their employees, and the health of the news ecosystem. At Insider Media, executives’ obsessive adherence to “metrics” pitted journalists against one another to churn out advertiser-friendly fluff in place of well-researched work. At Gannett, the costs of a merger that turned the company into America’s largest news conglomerate were forced onto employees in the form of mass layoffs and salary cuts. And at Tribune, private equity vultures cut the company to the bone to maximize shareholder returns with little left over to pay for quality journalism. 

While all of these stories are different in their specifics, I implore you to keep in mind the similarities. In each case, the need to maximize profits led companies to treat their journalists less like human beings who perform a critical civic function and more like interchangeable financial instruments that can be disposed of with little regard for the effects. Recognizing the destruction capitalism has wrought upon the journalism industry, we must begin to consider how these organizations would function differently if they did not have to worry about profitability and their success was instead determined by their value to the public.


Insider: Worshiping the Metrics God

The vast majority of Americans now get some or most of their news using digital devices. Outlets have, in turn, begun to cater their content toward online advertisers. The need to reach as many readers as possible to maintain a commercial appeal to advertisers forces reporters and publications to abandon their responsibility to serve the public good. Instead, they become more like marketing professionals. 

One of the best examples of this trend has been the rise of metrics—that is, data about how many people view and share particular articles—as a tool for story selection in newsrooms. Metrics have been colonizing newsrooms for the better part of a decade, perhaps best exemplified by Gawker Media’s “big board,” a giant, centrally located screen that publicly ranked writers’ stories based on audience engagement. Even The New York Times succumbed to this urge in 2015, featuring a “trending” bar on the website’s front page with the most viewed and most emailed stories. (The bar has since been removed.)

But Insider’s use of metrics was among the most ruthless. In 2021, Digiday reported that each journalist at the company’s various outlets, like Business Insider, was at the mercy of the metrics. They were required not just to submit a minimum quota of stories every month but were also responsible for earning “a specific amount of page views, unique visitors or subscriptions,” which were calculated using the analytics software Chartbeat. 

“You pick up very early on that the way to get praise and recognition is to have a story that’s really high up on Chartbeat,” one former reporter told The Daily Beast in 2020. On the other hand, failing to meet metrics requirements—which employees said often changed every quarter—could result in disciplinary action and even firing. One Insider writer described feeling like they were “expected to sell the stories” in addition to merely reporting them. Others said their weekly targets led them to prioritize “quantity over quality.” They even received memos urging them to “play the Chartbeat game” by avoiding topics that didn’t guarantee traffic and to simply “publish more.” Reporters said they shied away from undertaking more in-depth, original stories in favor of ones that could be produced quickly and fit neatly under a salacious headline.

The almost religious fixation on metrics did not just hurt story quality but damaged workplace morale as well. A Gawker-esque “big board” led journalists to feel as if they were being pitted against one another. But reporters were also required to submit their own self-evaluations of “impact points” and “helpfulness points” that could be earned by being quoted on cable news or being retweeted by a prominent journalist. In other words, reporters had to be as rigidly focused on documenting their own media footprints as they were on the subjects they actually covered. Facing pressure to meet weekly targets, writers would often “cannibalize” one another’s stories, regurgitating information from prior reports and even swiping stories and sources from reporters on other beats. 

Several other reporters described the granular fixation on metrics as adding undue stress, forcing them to work extra hours and forgo time off in order to hit unrealistic goals. This illustrates a secondary function of metrics: along with helping news organizations maximize advertising revenues, they serve as a disciplinary mechanism to squeeze more hours out of their workforce and diminish camaraderie within the workplace. “I have spent too much time consoling tearful colleagues over the phone about the fear of losing their job due to metrics goals. I have watched my friends leave the newsroom because they didn't feel valued. I have agonized over whether I'm going to make my traffic goals or whether I can afford to take time off when I'm severely burnt out,” said reporter Yelena Dzanovah.

After forming a union the previous fall, reporters for Insider went on strike in 2022, with their most important demand being an end to the practice of disciplining reporters for failing to achieve metrics goals. The company agreed to end the practice but still relies heavily on Chartbeat to guide their editorial direction. “Our work is often praised and incentivized when it ‘crushes the metrics,’ not for its quality or other merits,” said one reporter who spoke with The Fine Print.

Rutgers’s Caitlin Petre, a professor of journalism and media studies, analyzed this problem more thoroughly in her 2021 book, All the News That’s Fit to Click: How Metrics Are Transforming the Work of Journalists. Petre writes that metrics have “fundamentally reshape[d] the journalistic labor process” to one where “journalists are reduced from expert arbiters of newsworthiness to mere executors tasked with unquestioningly following the dictates of quantified representations of audience popularity.” She goes on to describe metrics as “an intrusion of commercial considerations into the newsroom,” adding that “by installing analytics dashboards, management is arguably taking a sledgehammer to the ‘wall’ between editorial and business operations that has long been central to the notion of journalistic independence and professionalism.” Petre says this endangers the civic value of journalism as well, calling metrics “a new patch of terrain on which the tension that exists in journalism between the profit motive and the democratic imperative is fighting itself out.”

Screenshot 2024-06-11 at 10.59.35 AMIllustration by Nick Sirotich

 

This observation was borne out in a 2020 meta-analysis conducted by Silke Fürst at the University of Zurich. In addition to the effects on working conditions for journalists themselves, Fürst argues that “journalists’ use of audience metrics has a mainly negative impact on news quality. This effect is the result of both the growing economic pressures on newsrooms and a dominant rhetoric that equates measures of audience size with audience interests and good journalistic work.” 

The constant demand for websites to be updated with new content creates an incentive for what is often called “churnalism,” a phenomenon in which time-strapped journalists write fewer deeply researched stories and more that merely regurgitate press releases or repackage news already released by other outlets. In a 2014 interview, one journalist working at the Slovenian news website Delo described their job as essentially one of “pure economy” where they “hunt for clicks by following what is out there online and what might get our readers’ attention.” 

With an emphasis on speed and volume, less attention is paid to ensuring accuracy. Meanwhile, the topics chosen are narrowed to what is guaranteed to draw attention. Because certain subjects have been found to generate more clicks, many websites that once had harder news focuses have amped up their coverage of celebrity gossip, crime, and sex. Political stories, likewise, increasingly focus on leaders’ personal foibles rather than the consequences of their actions. Rather than ponder whether monarchy is a just institution, for example, news outlets recently dedicated an entire news cycle to whether Kate Middleton had photoshopped her sleeves. 

Gannett: Cutting Corners

Conflicts over metrics have just been one dimension in the battle between employees and publishers over the conditions of journalistic labor. The past two years have seen an unprecedented number of strikes by U.S. journalists over layoffs, budget cuts, and pay inequality. This past summer, as strikes by Hollywood actors and writers dominated the headlines, workers at more than two dozen newspapers owned by the Gannett corporation also went on a two-day strike that had been years in the making.

In 2019, when it merged with GateHouse Media, Gannett became the largest media conglomerate in the United States. That merger loaded the company with debt, a problem it resolved by enacting a historic purge of its workforce under new CEO Mike Reed. In 2019, more than 25,000 journalists worked for Gannett papers. By 2023, just 11,000 employees remained. 

At some papers, the number of employees dropped by as much as 90 percent. Some of Gannett’s local newspapers were suddenly without a single full-time reporter; the few reporters who remained on staff desperately tried to pick up the slack for those who’d been fired. For employees who survived, the company handed down mandatory furloughs, suspended 401(k) contributions, and mandated a week of unpaid leave, all while cutting salaries by 10 percent. 

These savage cuts were made even more insulting by the knowledge that the same executives who instituted them were taking fat bonuses for themselves and spending hundreds of millions on stock buybacks. In 2020, amid mass layoffs and benefit cuts, the company’s chief financial officer was awarded a $1.2 million bonus for his “sacrifices during the pandemic.” While the average Gannett employee made just over $51,000 annually in 2021, Reed—who initiated the cuts—brought in $7.74 million in 2021 and $3.38 million in 2022. 

Working conditions at Gannett had been the subject of simmering resentment for years. The company had a well-known habit of paying its journalists of color much less than its white ones. Other workers went public with stories of wage theft that were met with derision by management. When one reporter at The Arizona Republic tweeted about her experience with illegal wage theft from Gannett, writing “Don’t work for nothing,” an editor at the paper responded by freely admitting to and justifying the practice, saying “Every business exploits the young — it’s called gaining experience, and I don’t regret it one bit.”

Working conditions were surely front and center when Gannett employees went on strike in 2023. But in their letter to shareholders demanding a vote of no confidence against Reed, they also drew attention to the way his cuts had demolished the nation’s news ecosystem. “He has reduced local content by relying on wire service and regional stories [and] cut newsroom staff,” the NewsGuild said. “As a result, our communities are not being served and our employees are demoralized.”

Over the four years between the 2019 merger and the 2023 strike, the number of papers owned by Gannett dropped from 563 to 400, as more and more outlets simply shut down or merged with others. That number is expected to drop even further in coming years. Most of the papers shuttered by Gannett and companies like it have been those in smaller towns, which are the least cost-effective but have arguably the greatest impact, as they are often the only source of high-quality information on local events like elections, school board decisions, and so on. Without them, many of America’s smaller towns are left as “news deserts,” says Joshua Benton at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. 

Since 2004, more than 2,100 newspapers have shuttered according to a study by the University of North Carolina. There are more than 200 counties around the country that lack a single newspaper, while more than half have only a single paper, usually a weekly.

Source: UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

In The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey neatly sums up the effect this trend has had on towns across America: 

By now, we know what happens when a community loses its newspaper. People tend to participate less often in municipal elections, and those elections are less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, and costs sometimes go up for town governments. Disinformation becomes the norm, as people start to get their facts mainly from social media.

In other words, the loss of local journalism to the profit imperative erodes democracy itself. 

Tribune: Hollowed Out

In the last two decades, ailing newsrooms have started to meet the same fate as the healthcare, retirement, and housing industries: they have been gobbled up by private equity firms, which reduce these industries to toys for investors to play with. Today, around half of America’s newspapers are controlled by private equity firms, hedge funds, or other investment groups, according to The Financial Times. As Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect writes: 

The private equity model is to acquire a newspaper property and strip it to the bone by cutting staff, selling real estate, getting rid of pension plans where possible, and extracting cash. Sometimes, the plan includes borrowing against the newspaper, pocketing the proceeds, and then sticking the debt on the newspaper’s balance sheet. Private equity owners are also notorious union-busters. 

According to research by Michael Ewens, Arpit Gupta, and Sabrina Howell of New York University’s Stern School of Business, the purchase of a paper by a private equity firm has obvious negative effects. It often coincides with a decreased focus on local news (which is considered less profitable than national news) and has led to a nearly 17 percent drop in the total number of articles written by a publication. Buyouts were often followed by cuts to the number of reporters and editors while salaries for those who remained were cut by 7 percent on average.

By far the largest and most notorious of these groups is Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund that owns hundreds of papers around the country. In 2021 Alden purchased Tribune Media, the second-largest newspaper publisher in the United States. The effect on the company was instantaneous. In The Atlantic, McKay Coppins writes that its flagship paper, The Chicago Tribune, was “reduced to a newsroom the size of a Chipotle.” He continues:

In the ensuing exodus, the paper lost the Metro columnist who had championed the occupants of a troubled public-housing complex, and the editor who maintained a homicide database that the police couldn’t manipulate, and the photographer who had produced beautiful portraits of the state’s undocumented immigrants, and the investigative reporter who’d helped expose the governor’s offshore shell companies. When it was over, a quarter of the newsroom was gone.

Coppins goes on to describe how the paper struggled to fulfill even basic functions:

After a powerful Illinois state legislator resigned amid bribery allegations, the paper didn’t have a reporter in Springfield to follow the resulting scandal. And when Chicago suffered a brutal summer crime wave, the paper had no one on the night shift to listen to the police scanner.

Alden Capital’s gutting of Tribune is one of the most high-profile cases in recent years. But it’s emblematic of what has happened around the country as smaller local newspapers have increasingly come to be owned by private equity firms, who treat their stewardship less like a long-term public service project and more like a short-term money making opportunity.

As Penelope Muse Abernathy, a journalist and academic who specializes in the study of news deserts, wrote last year in a report for the University of North Carolina about private equity:

Newspapers represent only a fraction of their vast business portfolios—ranging from golf courses to subprime lenders—worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. Their mission is to make money for their investors, so they operate with a short-term, earnings-first focus and are prepared to get rid of any holdings—including newspapers—that fail to produce what they judge to be an adequate profit.

The incentives of these “new media barons,” as Abernathy calls them, are fundamentally misaligned with those that create papers of quality and longevity. 

The capitalist ownership of media has always carried with it perverse incentives to prioritize profits and use papers as a bully pulpit for the interests of the owner. (For more on that, see Nathan J. Robinson’s piece on “How Rupert Murdoch Destroyed the News.”) But at the very least, newspaper owners in the past had reasons to invest in the long-term success of their media ventures, which required them to pay attention to the wants and needs of the public. This meant establishing credibility, expanding coverage, and hiring talented reporters. Private equity treats journalism as a pure, undifferentiated investment opportunity that can be picked up and dumped like corn futures or shares of Apple stock. Everything and everyone can be reduced to a dollar amount on a ledger. Everything becomes expendable.


While recounting all of these examples, it’s worth considering how they may have played out differently if the need for consistent profitability had not been a factor. Nonprofits, of course, still need to pay the costs of operation and bring in some revenues, but the survival of these publications is not contingent on the need to return maximum profits for owners and shareholders. If the goal was only to cover the costs of operation, the incentive to maximize clicks, cut salaries and benefits, and reduce newsrooms to the bare minimums they need to function might still exist, but it would be far less potent.

We see every day what nonprofit journalism can do. America’s oldest nonprofit news organization, the Associated Press, shapes news coverage across the thousands of newsrooms that use its wire service. (However, it did take an undeniable blow this year when the Gannett and McClatchy newspaper chains announced they’d be dropping the service.) ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, has produced half a dozen Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces since its inception in 2007 and broken critical stories exposing the audacious corruption of multiple Supreme Court justices. On a fraction of the budget, The Intercept has produced war reporting and investigations into the U.S. security state that surpass those of America’s most storied newsrooms. Nonprofit news makes up the bulk of left-wing publishing in America. The Nation, The American Prospect, and Jacobin remain indispensable homes for thoughtful progressive opinion. Meanwhile, Democracy Now! and Common Dreams cover daily news for a progressive audience while managing to largely eschew the Democratic Party sycophancy of their for-profit competitors like MSNBC.

The stories described above show that journalism still remains largely trapped in the for-profit model. But although the vast majority of reporters still work at for-profit entities, there are signs that a formidable nonprofit news economy could be sprouting up, especially in the local sphere. According to the Institute for Nonprofit News, the number of nonprofit newsrooms grew by 17 percent in 2022 and the revenues they have brought in have kept up with their creation. For more than 80 percent of them, their revenues either stayed the same or grew between 2021 and 2022. In 2014, just six percent of the nation’s statehouse press corps worked for nonprofits, according to Pew Research. By 2022, that number was up to 20 percent.

Some for-profit entities are shifting their models entirely. After more than a century of for-profit ownership, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Salt Lake Tribune have both converted to nonprofit status. The Inquirer’s staff is now far larger than those at major papers in comparable metro areas which are still owned by private companies. It has also opened a new investigative partnership with Spotlight PA, which has carried out numerous in-depth, issue-focused reports of the sort that the for-profit model discourages. The Salt Lake Tribune, meanwhile, has found financial sustainability for the first time in recent memory and has increased its staff by 23 percent. It has even created a new “solutions-oriented” team dedicated specifically to covering issues that affect Utah’s most disadvantaged communities.

Smaller papers have experienced a resurgence under nonprofit auspices as well. A collection of new philanthropic outfits—including the National Trust for Local News, Report for America, and the American Journalism Project—have emerged in the last decade to fund and revitalize local newsrooms that might otherwise face closure or buyouts. Earlier this year, the National Trust for Local News, which is dedicated to rescuing local news organizations from bankruptcy, purchased 22 ailing newspapers in Maine that were being targeted by a notorious private equity firm. Another coalition of philanthropic organizations—including the Knight and McArthur foundations—have announced the “Press Forward Initiative,” which will provide more than $500 million to local newsrooms around the country in hopes of reversing the trend of “news deserts.” 

But as a 2017 study by Rodney Benson, professor and chair of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, described it, nonprofit news as it currently exists is “a remedy, with shortcomings, to the journalism crisis.” Nonprofit news initiatives hardly eclipse the power of for-profit companies. And these newsrooms are still far from self-sufficient, relying on foundations and grants for the majority of their funding, which means their existence is still largely dependent on the will of wealthy philanthropists. 

Benson’s study found that while the control of financial elites is slightly less pronounced at news foundations and nonprofits, 

Project-based funding from foundations may skew media attention toward issues favored by donors. Media organizations dependent on project-based funding risk being captured by foundation agendas and are less able to investigate the issues they deem most important.

We’ve seen this happen at NPR, once a renowned home for audio journalism. In recent years, the broadcaster’s income has come largely from corporate sponsorships and donations from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As a consequence its outlook has become, as Kody Cava put it in Current Affairs, that of “a partisan news service with a sterile, professional tone that belies an underlying allegiance to a very narrow range of political viewpoints that are largely inoffensive to those in power.” 

Nonprofits are not immune from the pressures of the market, either. The Texas Tribune, once heralded as a savior of local media that inspired nonprofit ventures around the country, laid off 11 percent of its staff last year amid financial strain. And due to their more restricted budgets, nonprofit newsrooms also have accessibility problems that for-profits are less likely to have. Just to name one, many nonprofit newsrooms—even for local legacy papers—have excised their print editions in favor of entirely digital publications, which means that older community members accustomed to receiving a physical copy of the newspaper might struggle to make the transition to a new format. 

With all of this said, many of these problems exist to an even worse extent in for-profit news. Ultimately, the status quo cannot last. For-profit newsrooms are terminally hemorrhaging revenues and employees, while the newsrooms that remain become shells of their former selves. Something must fill the void they leave behind, and nonprofit newsrooms are far superior to any other option.

But the success of nonprofits in their current form has a ceiling as long as they are subject to market dynamics. Turning the media industry over to a network of nonprofits may be a good short-term solution to reorient publications away from the profit model, but a long-term solution will require our society to fundamentally reimagine journalism. We must come to understand it not as a commodity or a luxury but as a necessity for our communities to function. Like with housing, healthcare, education, and the other necessities of life, journalism needs to be freed from the private domain and reconsidered as a shared investment in the health of our society.

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