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Some 1,000 people were laid off last week at BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and a host of local newspapers that are part of the Gannett Company. A lot of people will say “so what?” Two websites that publish a lot of listicles and clickbait, plus smaller newspapers around the country that have been shrinking before our eyes – will we even miss them?
It’s certainly nothing new. In recent decades newrooms have shrunk by half or more thanks to the double whammy of losing both subscribers and ad revenue. Newspapers were profitable. They still are, but not like they were.
Here’s what troubles me about these layoffs, apart from continuing erosion of news capacity (for all its trashiness, BuzzFeed’s national security reporters published good stuff before they got the sack) and my abiding if old-school belief that journalism matters. They show two major weaknesses in the current state of news organizations.
First: dependence on a fickle revenue model. BuzzFeed was founded by a man who started at Huffington Post, and both organizations were the digital upstarts that understood the attention economy and knew how to make money from clicks. But that revenue stream is far from reliable. Two online behemoths, Google and Facebook, have something like 60 percent of the digital advertising market and they can decide what gets our attention with a tweak of their algorithms. BuzzFeed was designed explicitly so its stories would cavort around Facebook – until Facebook decided not to feature that kind of content in its newsfeed.
In part responding to complaints about the spread of fake news, Facebook switched to featuring more “friends and family” content, fewer viral videos and less news from publishers. (In Facebook terms, this is having “more meaningful interactions.” Remember, Zuckerberg famously said we’d find a squirrel dying in our front yard more relevant than people dying in Africa.) News organizations now have to pay to play if they want their news stories to be seen. For nearly a year even that was problematic - Facebook was labeling news stories about politics as political ads. Apart from that, I’m unsure the microtargeted behavioral advertising even works. Apparently The New York Times ditched it in Europe to comply with the EU’s GDPR and it they didn’t lose money. This is promising for privacy, but if the business model drives that Google and Facebook is actually hokum … well, that hokum has cost a lot of jobs.
Second, apart from the general shakiness of ad revenue, the Gannett layoffs point to the weakness of local journalism. Gannett owns a lot of papers. They risk being taken over by Adlen Capital, which has no interest in journalism beyond its revenues and a history or milking their properties dry and discarding the husk. If local news fails, we’re not going to know what’s going on in the statehouse. We’re not going to know what’s happening at city hall. We will have little information about huge swaths of the country. If our news becomes like Facebook and Google, dependent on a few big players, we’ll know ourselves less well.
I have no idea what the solution is, but you can get the lowdown in an epic Twitter thread by Jeremy Littau, journalism professor at Lehigh University, read a historical perspective from Harvard’s Jill Lepore, or be gently guilt-tripped by the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan who argues we should still subscribe to the local rag even as its quality declines.