The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends. Listen to The Gist via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.
There were big layoffs in journalism last week at Gannett, BuzzFeed, and Verizon-owned HuffPost. My colleague Henry Grabar posted a very good tweet about the layoffs: “Journalists who interview [Democratic] presidential candidates should ask if they know journalists have lost their jobs at a faster rate than coal miners. Then ask them what they’re going to do about it.” I don’t expect journalists to actually do this. It will seem self-serving, and coal miners are the object of, let’s face it, mostly pity.
But among my favorite coal miner job facts is the one I found out from Henry’s tweet: They actually have better job retention than journalists. And there are more personal trainers in America than there are coal miners. And a third: Coal miners, on average, make more money than both personal trainers and journalists.
Coal miner is a good job only in that it’s a good-paying job. That’s the only benefit: It pays well. If this were 1899 or even 1959, I would make the case that, yes, we also need coal for energy, but we don’t really need coal anymore. We do use a lot of coal, but less and less of it every day. That’s bad for the coal miners. But in terms of the health effects to them, the negative impact on the planet, job enjoyment, soot avoidance, coal miner is a very, very bad job.
“Journalist,” on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. It’s a good job, even though it’s a bad-paying job. But while it pays poorly, it’s interesting, it very much helps society, and the job-doer gets a lot of satisfaction from it.
Some people reacted to Henry’s tweet differently than I do. They greeted the news of the layoff with glee. They say that journalists are getting laid off because “journalists are bad at journalism.” This is untrue. When coal miners get laid off, is it because coal miners are bad at coal-mining? When machinists get laid off, are they bad at working their machines? In fact, has there ever been an industry with mass layoffs where the reason was that the workers just weren’t good at their jobs? While I think that many of the GIF jockeys in Henry’s feed who took pleasure in the layoffs of journalists are simply people with hearts darker than a coal miner’s lung, there were two misperceptions expressed over and over in between deeply considered memes from Anchorman.
I’d like to address these two misperceptions. One is that the reason journalists are losing their jobs is because journalism is held in low esteem. Another is that journalists just aren’t making work that’s popular enough to sustain an audience.
These are interrelated claims. Most of the publications we’re talking about are web-based publications, which are operating in a system that is dominated by Google and Facebook. Google and Facebook control almost three-quarters of digital ad dollars. To some extent, they deserve a big share. They’re clever, they attract a lot of eyeballs, they made products that advertisers want to use. On the other hand, they’re killing news.
More people read Slate last year than the year before and the year before that. We’ve generally grown the audience. But as the audience grows, the amount of money we make per eyeball shrinks; why would an advertiser go with a smallish platform that delivers a solid audience when it could instead target ads to the exact person who would be buying its product? Let’s say I make grapes. If I were advertising grapes, and I had $1,000 to do it, I’d go to Google, and I’d put my grape company in the results of people who literally search for grapes. Or I’d go to Facebook and take out ads on the pages of vintners. Or for a Cesar Chavez Google Doodle on the anniversary of the Delano grape strike, then I’d advertise there.
I’m sure some percent of Slate readers like grapes or want grapes, but they don’t add up to the super-targeted, highly efficient grape audience that Google and Facebook can deliver. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, except it’s killing news. But there are some things that Google and Facebook do that you can only do when you have massive scale. One of the things they do is that they take their content from places like Slate. They host it on their site, and it’s not like there’s no remuneration for that. There is a kickback for websites who get readers this way, but it is far from full freight. All the successful news organizations, therefore, know they have to become subscription services. Ad-based business is harder and harder with Google and Facebook sucking up all the advertising dollars.
The point is that journalists aren’t being laid off because their journalism is less popular or less important (I’m not even getting into the social importance of journalism here). I’m talking about why journalists are actually attracting bigger audiences but making less money from them. There’s this duopoly. So it shouldn’t be out of the question for government to regulate these two companies, which, by the way, have done a lot more harm to America than any “bad BuzzFeed non-scoop” ever did.
As far as journalists being held in low esteem, this is one of the charges of the GIF-ocracy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. I’m not saying journalism is held in particularly high esteem or higher esteem than the military (the No. 1 institution in polls), but it does better than Congress, HMOs, and big business. A few months ago, Gallup published the a report on U.S. media trust, having asked “How much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media?” 45 percent said either “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” This is up from 41 percent in 2017 and 32 percent in 2016 (I interpret that year’s cratering, which was an all-time low, to the media’s writing off Trump as a viable candidate).
If you look at the Gallup poll on the institutions that have respect, newspapers outrank TV news. But TV news is this healthy industry where there aren’t these mass layoffs, and if there were mass layoffs in big business, Twitter interlocutors wouldn’t be doing a touchdown dance proclaiming, “See? See? You get what you pay for. No one likes big business.”
Journalists sometimes get it wrong. That’s true. But even when they don’t get it wrong, they do challenge us. They do discomfort us. They do make us rethink our worldviews, and a lot of us don’t like that.
“Do you hold the media in esteem?” Maybe if I were asked that, I would think of CBS, and Margaret Brennan, and Face the Nation. And I’d say yes, I do. But maybe I would think of Fox News and Ainsley Earhardt, and then I’d say, “Nah, not really.” When a pollster asks the question, we could all think of the journalists we don’t like and chafe.
Also, I do find when there is a piece of journalism that’s bad, you think of it as journalism writ large. But when there’s a piece of journalism that checks out, you just think of it as truth. Take the #MeToo movement, one of those uncomfortable subjects to a lot of people answering that Gallup poll. What’s it about? It’s about women and justice and reckoning. But it exists because of journalism.
As Axios, successful digital publisher, would ask, “What’s it all mean?” Here’s what it means: The business model for digital journalism is broken, or maybe it never really worked in the first place. The skill and quality of individual journalists has nothing to do with mass layoffs. The misdeeds of journalism as a profession do nothing to explain the demise of specific journalists, especially those working in the most desolate corner of the media landscape. And if coal miners were able to put thoughts or images or arguments in your brain—thoughts and images and arguments that you often objected to—you would find a way to resent them, too.