Even by the standards of a news organization whose fortunes have plummeted in the digital age, the last few weeks have been particularly bleak for American journalism.
Prominent newspapers like the Washington Post are laying off reporters and editors, and on Tuesday the Los Angeles Times laid off more than 20 percent of its editorial staff. Cable news ratings have fallen due to an uncompetitive presidential primary campaign. Prestigious titles like Sports Illustrated, already a shadow of their former selves, were wiped out overnight.
As Americans prepare for an election year that will be marked by disinformation wars, AI-generated agitprop and debate over the future of democracy, the mainstream news industry – once the de facto guardian and arbiter of public discourse – is struggling to stay afloat to stay.
The pain is particularly pronounced at the community level. According to Northwestern University's Medill School, an average of five local newspapers are closing every two weeks, and more than half of all American counties are now so-called news deserts with limited access to news about their hometowns. Of 1,100 public radio stations and affiliates, only about one in five produces local journalism.
“At a time when America arguably needs more in-depth reporting than ever before, it is very disturbing to see economic forces asserting themselves so strongly against traditional news sources,” said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News who worked with a Group of MIT researchers working together on the future of news and information.
“It’s not just worrying,” he added. “It is dangerous.”
The decline has been going on for years, but a painful confluence of challenges has led to the current carnage.
Americans are suffering from news fatigue and are inundated with important news such as the upcoming elections and the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. Those who follow the news are increasingly turning to social media and anti-establishment sites that exist outside of the legacy organizations.
Companies are spending more of their advertising budgets to reach users on big tech platforms like Instagram and Google – which in turn are less reliable at pointing readers to traditional news sources. Twitter, now X, lost users and relevance after Elon Musk's messy takeover, while Google and Meta laid off key news staff and the head of Instagram's Threads app said it wouldn't focus on news.
Issues at the corporate level also took their toll.
The rise of streaming and the decline of moviegoing has caused the parent companies of many news outlets to tighten their belts. Disney, which owns ABC News, cut thousands of jobs last year. With NBCUniversal losing viewers from its once-formidable cable television division, NBC News laid off several dozen employees this month. CNN, owned by debt-ridden Warner Bros. Discovery, experienced a round of layoffs. Paramount, which owns CBS News, is also planning deep cuts, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Boston Globe have found success in attracting digital subscribers, and there are some emerging niche subscription-based startups that largely focus on a single industry, such as The Information for Tech and The Knuckles for Hollywood.
Still, the onslaught of painful headlines is an ominous sign of the entire news industry's efforts to develop sustainable business models.
The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times appeared poised for a comeback after both newspapers were purchased by a tech-savvy billionaire, a financial benefactor the industry hoped could serve as a lifeline as print revenues declined . A hiring spree and Pulitzer Prizes followed at both newspapers.
But both lost tens of millions of dollars last year. This month, Kevin Merida, the widely respected publisher of the Los Angeles Times, resigned after falling out with the paper's owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, had clashed. Then there were extensive layoffs.
“If you care about journalism — local news, national news, international news — every warning light should be flashing red,” said Mary Louise Kelly, host of NPR's “All Things Considered.” wrote on X after news of these layoffs spread.
The postal service is cutting costs under its billionaire owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The newspaper grew in popularity during the Trump administration but failed to expand its subscriber growth. Shortly before the new year, the postal service announced that 240 employees had accepted buyouts.
The Baltimore Sun, Maryland's largest newspaper, also faces an uncertain future. It was sold this month to David D. Smith, a businessman who runs the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. Many reporters at The Sun fear Mr Smith will impose his political interests on a newspaper he recently admitted he has barely read in the last 40 years.
The magazine world was not immune. Last week, Sports Illustrated, once a giant of sports journalism whose cover was a coveted prize for the world's best athletes, announced that the company was laying off much of its entire staff and its future is in doubt as its owners consider selling the property license new investors. Days earlier, Condé Nast had folded Pitchfork, once a kingmaker among the music scene's bright minds, into GQ magazine and laid off employees, including the editor-in-chief.
On Tuesday, unionized Condé Nast workers staged a walkout and protest outside the World Trade Center headquarters. Time magazine, owned by Salesforce founder and billionaire Marc Benioff, also began laying off employees this week.
The recent bad news is in some ways a continuation of last year. In 2023, Business Insider, The Los Angeles Times and NPR have cut at least 10 percent of their staff; BuzzFeed's news division closed; News Corp laid off 1,250 employees; National Geographic laid off its remaining employees; Vox Media experienced two rounds of layoffs; Vice Media filed for bankruptcy; Popular Science has closed its online magazine; and ESPN, Condé Nast and Yahoo News are all cutting jobs.
“A new reality has arrived at legacy media, both the billionaire-owned print media and some of the high-profile national digital players that attracted such attention a decade ago,” said Ken Doctor, a media entrepreneur and analyst.
Now the news industry is facing new hurdles brought about by artificial intelligence technology. Some media outlets have expressed concerns that AI algorithms that generate spontaneous answers to readers' questions could replace online news sites as a go-to source for current events.
The New York Times has sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement, arguing that millions of articles published by The Times were used to train automated chatbots that now compete as information providers. Some publishers, such as Axel Springer, contract with OpenAI for annual payments in return for the use of their digital archives.
If there is a bright spot, it might be the local television news.
Although local television news stations are struggling with their own problems – heavier workloads for reporters even as salaries have stagnated – many are still doing better than local newspapers, said Mr. Heyward, the former president of CBS News who now works as a consultant for several works local news outlets.
“Local television news has a lot to offer,” he said. “Virtually every market of any size has three to four competing newsrooms, which is a stark contrast to the local newspaper, where a market is lucky to have one. And when it does, it’s generally just a shadow of its former self.”
A 2023 Gallup and Knight Foundation poll found that Americans trust local news sources far more than national media organizations. And just 19 percent of Americans described their trust in journalists as “high” or “very high” in a Gallup poll released this week, a nine-point decline from four years ago.
“They cannot be demonized as fake news,” Mr. Heyward said of local media. “When a traffic light is broken at Elm and Maple, people know it and there are no alternative facts. Americans have a hard time finding common ground, but in a local market they have it.”