The New York Daily News laid off almost half of its newsroom staff last week, prompting hand-wringing about the dire state of journalism, especially local newsrooms. But laments about the death of the news business are often oversimplified. Newsgathering isn’t dying; instead, it’s becoming stratified, with real implications for our knowledge of the world.
The New York Daily News was founded nearly a century ago by Joseph Medill Patterson, a member of the McCormick family, which parlayed a manufacturing fortune into a second fortune manufacturing public opinion in the heartland. Patterson pioneered in bringing the tabloid format to New York, and he plunged the paper into the high-tech new medium of the day: high-speed photography.
The Daily News even made a bit of photojournalism history early on when photographer Tom Howard smuggled a hidden camera into Sing Sing prison. In defiance of prison rules, he snapped a photo of Ruth Snyder as she was executed in the electric chair for killing her husband. The photo ran the next day on page one under the stark headline “DEAD!”
After a slow start, the Daily News caught on among New Yorkers. The paper took advantage of a flourishing newspaper business — in the early 1920s, New York City alone had a whopping 17 daily newspapers in English. There were many more publications in other languages or aimed at particular audiences, such as union members, African Americans, horse fanciers and more.
Although the Daily News was hardly read outside the New York City area, it was immensely popular with the city’s working and middle class. By 1925, the paper was selling more than 1 million copies a day. Circulation peaked in 1947 at 2.4 million a day and close to 5 million on Sunday.
The Daily News was beloved for not pulling punches. In true tabloid style, it was often brimming with stories about crime (especially if they involved some famous person or some novel technique) and corruption in state or city affairs.
In recent decades, the Daily News was owned by real estate developer Mort Zuckerman, who steered the paper in a somewhat liberal political direction. That positioned the Daily News as a counterweight to the city’s other daily tabloid, the New York Post, owned by the conservative Rupert Murdoch since 1976. Both owners lost money on their tabloids, but each man found reasons to want an editorial platform in the country’s largest city.
Such patronage, alas, has its limits. In September, Zuckerman cut his losses, selling the Daily News to the vulture capitalists known as Tronc (which specializes in buying U.S. newspapers, gutting them until profitable, then selling them) for a single dollar.
Tronc struck last week, but its draconian cuts shouldn’t be a surprise. American newspapers have been shedding jobs for decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 455,000 people employed in the newspaper industry in 1990, doing everything from reporting to laying out ads to driving the trucks that deliver the papers. Now, the number is below 200,000. That’s a decline of 60 percent, or something comparable to the decline in coal mining jobs.
But people who interpret these statistics to mean the death of journalism are oversimplifying the situation. The picture is not so bleak if you look at the bigger category of people who work in what might be called “the media” — which includes not only newspapers but also magazines, books, Internet publishing, filmmaking, cable and broadcast TV, radio and others. All told, the BLS counted 1.28 million media types in 1990 and 1.23 million in 2016, a decline of just 4 percent.
And some of that decline could be because of gains in productivity. After all, many journalists today carry around a multimedia production studio in their backpacks and can create audio and video materials that used to require a truckload of gear and a team of unionized specialists.
Even within the hard-news business, developments are not all bad. Some journalism operations, especially with a national audience, are thriving. NPR is having a banner year, as are MSNBC and Fox News. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are reporting record numbers of digital subscribers. And some “digital natives” — such as HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Politico, Jezebel and the Undefeated — have gone from employing essentially zero journalists to employing thousands. Podcasting, which did not exist as a career five years ago, is exploding.
But the business model that supported the American newspaper since the 1830s is cratering and not coming back.
The fundamental problem is that print advertising has dried up as a reliable stream of revenue. During the 19th century, most U.S. newspapers came to rely heavily on display advertising and classified ads. Together, those sources accounted for more than half of all the revenue at most papers. The fraction coming in from circulation (either by subscription or by newsstand sales) dipped below half. In other words, the readers were being subsidized by the advertisers. Readers are resistant to paying more, so as advertising revenue erodes, many newspapers find themselves in a death spiral.
And this has a real impact in how state and local news gets covered — or not covered.
Thirty years ago, I had a unionized, full-time job with benefits working for the Associated Press in Boston, covering the shenanigans in the Massachusetts Statehouse. And I was not alone. The AP had a bureau of three or four reporters, and United Press International had nearly as many. The Boston Globe had a half-dozen staffers in the building, and the Herald had a reporter and a columnist. All of the newspapers from the state’s medium-sized cities also had at least one reporter at the Statehouse, as did a bunch of suburban dailies and local television and radio stations.
Many of the members of that press corps were savvy veterans, senior reporters who saw the beat as the culmination of a career that usually included reporting on fires, crime and zoning board hearings. Many had covered city hall in their hometowns. Most of us were on a first-name basis with members of Congress, the governor and his senior aides, legislators and all the other movers and shakers.
We reporters had a dedicated workspace in the Statehouse known as the press gallery. Desks were jammed together, and correspondents fought for space. Local papers were proud to have their own correspondent watching over their area’s legislative delegation. And there was plenty of news: At one point, four House speakers in a row were indicted on felony corruption charges.
Today, however, the press gallery is nearly empty. The newspapers whose correspondents once filled Room 456 still exist. But they can no longer afford to station a reporter full-time in the state capitol. And that has stark consequences. State legislators, judges and bureaucrats did not suddenly become more virtuous, but today we may never find out what shenanigans are going on.
And that is true in state houses, city halls, cop shops and courthouses across the country — the watchmen no longer exist. It would be a great time to be a corrupt governor, mayor or judge, because no one is looking.