ICYMI: Freelance Journalists Cover Insights Into the State of the Fourth Estate
There is no free press without the press— and it’s in decline across the country as plummeting ad revenues, newspaper closures, and staff layoffs continue to plague the industry at dire rates. Newsrooms have declined in size by nearly 50% in the last decade and over 7,800 employees were laid off in 2019. A large reason for this decline? Market dominance and exploitation by Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook. The financial fallout of COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues, leaving the news industry to struggle for its life. This is the state of the Fourth Estate.
Co-founded by previously laid-off reporters Laura Bassett and John Stanton, the Save Journalism Project held a Kickstarter campaign to fund freelance articles highlighting these important issues. More than 100 individual donors supported the Freelance Reporting Initiative to tell the story of Big Tech’s impact on communities across the country. Recent reporting by Robin Ash and Susan C. Ingram, featured in two separate Medium articles, is a byproduct of this initiative. Ingram’s piece “What happens to community when community newspapers disappear?” and Ash’s “A News Extinction Rebellion” both offer in-depth insight into the state of the news.
The following is a statement from Laura Bassett, former Senior Politics Reporter for HuffPost who was laid off in January 2019, and co-founder of the Save Journalism Project:
Our Freelance Reporting Initiative was set up to fund quality reporting on tech giants’ decimation of the journalism industry and the crisis facing local news. Over the past 15 years, 1,800 communities have lost their local news outlets and that means, beats not being covered, corruption increasing, political and voter participation diminishing and government officials are going unchecked. And while journalism jobs are exponentially diminishing, the journalists who remain are risking their lives every day to ensure their consumers are presented with the facts about elections, a national pandemic and racial inequalities. We cannot turn our backs on this industry that means so much to the foundational tenets of our country. Especially now when accurate reporting is more crucial than ever — our democracy won’t survive without it.
Ash’s article on the critical state of the news industry is available online here with its opening paragraphs below:
“NEWS-SUB ONE! WHO ARE YOU — AND WHERE THE F*** ARE YOU?”
The terrifying voice roaring across the newsroom was directed at me, and there was nowhere to hide. The only advice I’d extracted from my surly veteran neighbor on my first copy-editing shift on a national newspaper was “cut from the end — and do it quickly”. The coalface grunts were numbers, not names, referred to only by computer log-ins, and nobody had bothered to define the word decimation for me. But that was why the irate editor was hunting me down — to give me a blistering (but, as I’d learn, not coruscating) re-education. “Decimate” can be controversial. It originates from executing one in ten mutinous Roman legionaries pour encourager les autres, so means to reduce by 10 percent. Its use to mean “drastically cut” was forbidden. If the error slipped past a sub-editor, their chief-sub would pick it up. If not, the Chief Revise Editor’s blue pencil would excise it on the final proof. Pedantry? Perhaps. But precision was sacrosanct, and the same fastidiousness was applied to facts, accuracy — and truth. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I was fortunate to begin in journalism when this process still existed, and the internet hadn’t yet — literally — decimated revenues. The Chief Revise Editor, deemed expensive and expendable, was an initial victim of the first wave of the web-revolution redundancies. Soon, interns were publishing unchecked copy on the website of a “paper of record” to cut costs and compete with news aggregators. The war between “dead tree” newspapers and tech giants had begun, and — to coin a cliché to make an editor of old spin in their grave — the first casualty was truth.
This conflict has been the defining story of journalism over recent decades — trying to stem the hemorrhaging of advertising revenue to aggregator giants such as Facebook and Google who profit from the news that they appropriate and disseminate, while somehow continuing to provide quality journalism. Or simply to survive.
Death by a thousand cuts
As a result of the theft of their labor, news publishers have lost billions in revenue and hundreds of local papers have closed, creating “news deserts” in communities across the world. In the US 60% of counties now have no daily newspaper, and 171 have no coverage at all. Over the past decade, newsrooms declined in size by almost 50%, and last year the US media shed more than 7,800 employees. Department of Labor statistics show that newspaper jobs fell by almost 70% in two decades…
Ingram’s article on the necessity of local news and the loss of community newspapers in Baltimore is on available online here with its excerpts below:
After leaving my full-time reporting job at a Baltimore-area weekly in July 2019 to help my mom after a cancer diagnosis, I figured I could get by working as her aide and freelancing. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, locking me out of caring for her and cutting me out of freelance work as local publications took a hit.
A monthly magazine I wrote for cut its freelance budget when its ad revenue dropped and page counts went from 100 to 50. Its sister pub, a 100-year-old Baltimore weekly, is suffering a similar fate with its freelance budget and page counts.
…But newspaper closures aren’t hot news anymore.
Thirteen years ago, a global economic fail triggered a recession leading to the newspaper industry reporting on its own collapse. Today, surviving local news outlets are reporting at a time when accurate news and information is critical, even a matter of life and death, underlining just how vital community news sources are.
Much explaining has been done in those 13 years since the Great Recession began. Newspaper ad revenues fell as businesses tightened their belts while throwing most, if not all, of their content online — for free. By the time they got savvy about monetizing news sites, it was too late. By 2017, Google and Facebook were controlling “more than 70% of the $73 billion spent each year on digital advertising,” David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, wrote in “How Antitrust Undermines Press Freedom” (Wall Street Journal July 2017).
…In 1990, when I moved into my Northwest Baltimore County neighborhood, there were at least six community newspapers covering the corridor’s black, white, Jewish and emerging Muslim, Latino and South Asian communities. Of the Community Times, Randallstown News, Owings Mills Times, Woodlawn Villager, Baltimore Jewish Times and Northwest Voice, only the Jewish Times and Northwest Voice survive.
…“It became a point of pride that the community had a newspaper that spoke for them,” said retired Community Times editor Baxter Smith. “It said on the banner Community Times, or Randallstown News, and then when [they] were shuttered, for some people it was like a punch in the gut.”
…When a community loses its local newspapers, it loses its sense of self, Smith added, as well as its watchdogs. And for chronically underserved minority communities, the loss is felt even more keenly. We kept a close eye on the minority communities in our coverage area, writing about student achievement gaps, healthcare disparities and the dearth of economic development.
…“I think community newspapers were insanely important. If you’re writing about the right things, and you’re covering development and local government, there’s always an audience for it,” he added. “I was doing some serious watchdog journalism. Corruption can just run amok when that stuff goes unchecked, and without people writing about the financial ties of developers, the politicians and the closed-door practices of local governments, the citizens end up getting screwed. They’re the ones who suffer.”