The news isn’t in a good place right now, but you know what they say: if you’re going through hell, keep going until you end up in an even more painful and humiliating subdivision. For example, if you've seen the news about recent media layoffs, the affected sites keeps scrolling and scrolling like a casualty list from some great war. Yes, 2021 is shaping up to be a miserable year for reporters who have basic standards, because …
Let's start by talking about the New York Times. Thanks to their COVID coverage and their deciphering of Trump’s word salad, their subscriber base jumped from five million to over seven million in 2020. Naturally, their ad revenue then … dropped about 50% in a quarter. Advertising, an industry that already has several dozen knives dangling above it, had a terrible 2020. Major publications, like The Atlantic, The Athletic, and others that start with different letters, have survived thanks to similar subscription drives. Local newspapers have… not.
Between 2008 and 2019, newspaper staffs were chopped in half. The pandemic did not improve this. Thousands of papers have folded or merged, leaving 65 million Americans with either just one local paper, or no local news at all. Ad revenue has dropped 68% and, unlike the New York Times, Americans don’t see the value in subscribing to the St. Augustine Herald-Tribune-Star-Sun. It’s just assumed that their local paper will always be there, right up until it isn’t.
Facebook and Google’s crushing cyberpunk duopoly deserves much of the blame, but we’ll get to them. About 55% of America’s surviving local papers are owned by financial institutions that have about as much interest in reporting as Scrooge McDuck has in Marxism. Hedge fund Alden Global Capital has been dubbed a “strip-miner” for snapping up papers, slashing 85% of the jobs, and forcing surviving journalists to buy their own pens and work without hot water in the office. Assuming they still have an office; Alden often buys papers just so they can sell their real estate.
Some layoffs are inevitable, but Alden cuts jobs at twice the rate of competitors that have managed to turn papers profitable. At one point they left a single reporter to cover Vallejo, California’s 120,000 people. Papers can be owned by people who want to own papers, or papers can be owned by people who want to suck them dry for the sake of propping up other investments, and local news has been gutted by the vampiric category. It’s not that local news can’t make money; it’s that it will never make enough for people who either don’t give a shit about journalism or, worse, associate it with ingrates who don’t appreciate their $36 grand and cold water as they whine about how centibillionaires don’t pay enough taxes.
You, however, should give a shit. While local news can be stereotyped as a source of hard-hitting reports on missing dogs and the spring ho-down, reductions in coverage are linked to increased political polarization, drops in voter turnout, and a decline in civic engagement. And local reporters often cover important stories that national outlets can’t; in 2017, the Charleston Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer for their investigation into how pharmaceutical companies flooded West Virginia with prescription opioids, leading to one of the country’s worst overdose rates. A year later the paper went bankrupt, got snapped up by a conglomerate, and laid off a chunk of their staff. An area that used to have two papers now has a grand total of three reporters, so if you’re a pharmaceutical executive looking to try a new evil scheme we guess now’s a great time.
As media work becomes less reliable than selling plasma and stealing from the dollar store, prominent journalists have struck out on their own via Medium, Substack, and other platforms that are basically just LiveJournal without the mood emojis. The theory behind Substack is that, if a journalist has 1,000 fans willing to pay five bucks a month for their unique coverage, they can make a comfortable $60,000 annually without being trapped in the beached whale that is journalism.
But is that dream viable? If people serious about the news are subscribing to major publications like the New York Times, how much money will be left over for all those competing Substacks? Substack points to some of the big names they’ve drawn to the platform… but they’re also paying some of those writers up to $250,000 for a year of their time.
It’s called Substack Pro, and Substack won’t say which writers benefit from it. Creators will give Substack free writing while the platform dangles the potential of financial independence in front of them, all while the success stories hopeful writers are trying to emulate may secretly be bankrolled. It’s like pointing to Wyatt Russell as an example of how any plucky kid with a dream can make it in Hollywood.
Some of you are still saying “Wait, so what the hell is Substack, exactly?” and that’s another problem. It’s a platform for everything from cooking tips, to Patti Smith talking about what she’s been reading, to extensive investigative journalism, to rambling screeds about how Stalin did nothing wrong, to writing by and for the sort of people who call their ailing grandparents to explain the “Bean Dad” saga, each accursed word tempting grandma to just reach over and pull the plug. No one edits or curates Substack, which is fine if you’re running a One Piece fanfic newsletter but less fine if you’re, say, dedicated to arguing that trans people are subhuman, or are a prominent journalist who’s decided that having an editor is for chumps.
Glenn Greenwald, once a prominent journalist, has turned his Substack into a way to make $80,000 a month by insulting young reporters and arguing that it was totally appropriate for Matt Gaetz to seduce teenagers. Mark Halperin landed on Substack after being booted from NBC for sexually harassing at least a dozen women. Andrew Sullivan claims he makes $500,000 a year on Substack, and he can’t stop suggesting that some races are inherently inferior. Substack isn’t going to save journalism; it’s going to let some writers make beer money while successful people who couldn’t handle reasonable criticism get to live in a world where they never have to be wrong again. And speaking of creating a less informed world…
Conservative media hasn’t been immune to layoffs; Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner and The New York Post all killed jobs over the last few years, while The Weekly Standard pulled the plug in 2018. Right-leaning local papers have been hit too. But there’s “Small businesses should pay fewer taxes” conservatism and then there’s “Anyone who voted for Joe Biden is a communist traitor” conservatism, and the latter is riding a tidal wave of cash.
Take billionaire Richard Uihlein, who founded shipping giant Uline with nothing but hardworking American gumption and his family’s multi-generational Schlitz beer money. He’s been backing The Federalist which, among other idiocies, spent much of 2020 pushing Uihlein’s opinion that COVID was just the sniffles. After Uihlein and his wife predictably got COVID, they moved on to inventing claims of election fraud. Current baffling Federalist headline: “HOW MASTERCARD’S RULES AGAINST CHILD PORNOGRAPHERS COULD BE USED TO BAN CONSERVATIVES FROM BANKING.”
Uihlein and his wife, who micromanages their hometown like it’s a Sim City game, have dropped tens of millions of dollars on increasingly fringe politics, from backing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore after he faced multiple sexual assault allegations to giving $4.3 million to a group that helped organized the attack on the Capitol. They subscribe to the longstanding political theory that America doesn’t do enough to support its borderline omnipotent billionaires, and their media donations help push the belief that smashing unions, cutting welfare programs, and ignoring climate change would help us all achieve maximum freedom.
RealClearPolitics, for example, has been kept afloat with over $5.5 million from the Uihleins, Charles Koch (who dreamed of transforming America into a country that would make Ayn Rand’s ghost spontaneously orgasm), Rebekah Mercer (who’s been using her skills as a lifelong heiress to fund the hellscape that is Parler), and other foundations named after people whose politics are akin to Smaug lecturing the dwarves on what’s best for them. RealClear is currently warning readers that Joe Biden plans to let illegal immigrants flood across the border so they can be registered as Democrats.
The Daily Caller (current headline: “ANALYSIS: We Ranked Pro Sports From Most Conservative To Most Woke”), The College Fix (“Former university professor warns about ‘racism racket,’”) Breitbart (“EMPEROR BIDEN EYES CANCELING FEDERAL STUDENT DEBT WITHOUT CONGRESS”) and Commentary (whatever “America’s Racial Self-Flagellation at the UN Only Helps Rogue States” is supposed to mean) are among the publications to have received millions of dollars from America’s dumbest elites, essentially freeing them from the need to maintain a subscriber base or adhere to the basic tenets of reality.
If websites need giant piles of money to stay afloat, and if those giant piles of money are primarily coming from people who think LGBT activists are in cahoots with the Chinese government, we are not going to have a healthy media landscape. To put that another way, Spectator USA is currently offering a thoughtful conservative look at how America can move forward from its failures in Afghanistan, while the ultraconservative One America News Network is still giving top billing to the conspiracy theory that mass voter fraud stole the 2020 election from Trump. OANN has about, oh, 45 times the Twitter reach that Spectator does. Untethering from existence has grown increasingly profitable, so if you don’t value your soul there’s money to be made in starting a website called The Republic Thinker that accuses kindergarten teachers of being crypto-communists in lieu of having actual ideas.
To say that Google and Facebook control the internet is like saying that that Caesar guy had some say over what Rome did. Together, they control about 86% of digital advertising, and they’ve been collaborating to keep it that way. Unlike ye olde days, you don’t pay your local paper to advertise Good Rides, your combination car and sex toy dealership; if you want to advertise online, you have to go through Mark Zuckerberg’s ghoulish minions. While news sites do the actual reporting work, Google and Facebook take most of the advertising revenue for acting as mandatory middlemen. Small papers can’t negotiate better terms, because the entire Podunk Messenger has a smaller budget than Facebook’s snack bar. That's not even a joke; the "snack bar" could feed a midsized town:
And so in 2018 Google made $4.7 billion from news that it contributed nothing to the creation of, about as much as every single news organization in America combined made from ads. And not that we’d know anything about it, but the exploitation is pretty blatant; tech companies also tend to… suggest that websites try whatever new idea they’ve come up with that week, whether it’s pivoting to video or changing the way headlines are written or transforming articles into 487-part TikToks. When those ideas fail, the creators are the ones who get screwed.
All of that is why Australia recently fought an antitrust battle with Google and Facebook, and kind of came out on top. Tech companies now have to negotiate reasonable licensing fees for links that provide them with traffic, data, and advertising revenue, rather than just sucking it all up like a mosquito. Facebook threatened to take their ball and go home by blocking all Australian sources from their platform like a petulant Richie Rich, but eventually gave in after some concessions.
Canada and Britain are now considering similar laws, and there are antitrust rumblings in the States as well. These laws aren’t perfect, and there are still massive problems with the whole system; news sites get the vast majority of their traffic from social media, while the impressive profit social media makes from news is still just a drop in their all-devouring bucket. If Facebook dropped news links to return to pokes and Farmville invites from people you haven’t spoken to since high school, it’s journalism that would take the hit.
But new laws are a start. Facebook and Google controlling both how you read the news and how the news makes its money has created a situation where news readership is up yet revenue is down, the kind of contradiction that should make Adam Smith rise from his grave to seek revenge on those who’ve abused his work. If that doesn’t change then websites will die or be murdered by hedge funds, and it will be the OANNs and Glenn Greenwalds of the world that fill the void.
Top image: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock