The Slatest

Journalists Didn’t Love the Washington Post Ad. They Should!

A newspaper coming out of a printing press.
People don’t like us as much as we like us.
Bank Phrom / Unsplash

Some journalists are up in arms over a Washington Post advertisement during the Super Bowl that promoted the work of journalists.

With a sticker price of at least $5.2 million, and likely closer to $10 million, it’s a big buy for a newspaper that is nickel-and-diming its employees over starting salaries and health insurance. Moreover, it comes after two weeks of layoffs in the industry have left journalists sad and angry about, among other things, executive mismanagement at newspapers and digital media companies.

This is not an example of that. It’s an ad for an idea—that reporting is vital, brave work—which seems like conventional wisdom to us, but isn’t widely shared. What better entity to promote that message than a company owned by a man who makes a Super Bowl ad rate every hour?

There’s a lot to be mad about. Digital First Media, Alden Capital’s job-destroying media conglomerate, is an unconscionable enterprise suffocating local democracy for a quick buck. Tribune Publishing (formerly Tronc, née Tribune Publishing), with its gargantuan top salaries, is harmful in a more hapless way. Facebook and Google’s vampire-squid hold on digital ad revenue is another pain point. As are the country’s ISPs, who collect monopoly rents for services that people (must) buy in order to, among other things, read the news.

Five million dollars sure would buy a lot of investigations. It would support 12 journalists for five years at $75,000 a head, which is considerably above a U.S. reporter’s median income of $39,000. (We’re not in it for the money, folks.)

But the Post’s ad money is not coming from a dying paper like the East Bay Express, the prize-winning alt-weekly that held the Oakland Police Department and others accountable before its entire editorial staff was laid off last month.

It’s coming from one of the few papers that has come out of the digital era stronger than before, buoyed by the nation’s unhealthy fixation with news from Washington, deeply supported investigative reporting … and an owner who is the richest man in the world. The Post was profitable in 2016 and 2017. One industry criticism of the ad is that it comes from a paper that does seem to be bargaining hard with its employees. But with Bezos money behind the operation, spending shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game. If anything, this ad provides fodder for the paper’s union to use the institution’s own words (and actions) to bolster its argument—that journalists put a lot on the line and deserve better wages and benefits, and that the Post can afford to pay them.

Furthermore, if you think advertising has any value at all, there are two ways the spot works to the advantage of the rank-and-file.

First, it does a little PR for a beleaguered industry that, despite journalists’ instinctive and well-earned distrust of public relations, needs it if we expect any kind of federal effort to address the declining viability of the free press. Which we should: If coal miners’ job loss was a crisis that demanded a response from presidential candidates, why not the 23 percent decline of newsroom jobs over the past decade (45 percent at newspapers alone)? The free press is defined in opposition to government, but it has been dependent on sensible policy from the Stamp Act to net neutrality.

While reporters are invariably assured of their own invaluable role in functioning democracy (and the research backs us up), most Americans think of the media either as hectoring culture warriors or the guy in the windbreaker who tries to dodge a flying stop sign on the Outer Banks every September. It hasn’t helped to have a president whose disdain for the work feels like a spiritual betrayal of his pledge to defend the First Amendment. According to Pew research from September, just 21 percent of U.S. adults have “a lot of trust” in information from national news organizations. One in 3 has “not too much” or “none at all.”

That’s as much a crisis as the business model, and a related one. Americans trust local media most; arguably they need local media most; local media has been hit hardest by the internet’s jab-cross-uppercut on classified ads, subscriptions, and digital revenue. Like it or not, this business needs a PR campaign, and who to undertake the heart-swelling tributes to heroes like Marie Colvin if not the most successful news operation in the land? (Or the other most successful news operation in the land, which also has an ad campaign.)

Which brings me to a second reason I like the ad. It’s not just an ad for the Post—not all the featured reporters worked there—but for journalists everywhere, and for every investigation down from Watergate and Syrian war crimes to the scandal at your school board. It’s an ad for an idea.

Think of it that way, and $5 million to preach for 60 seconds to 100 million Americans seems all right. Even among our neighbors who appreciate the work we do, many don’t pay for it. One commercial isn’t going to juice local newspaper subscriptions. But it affirms the proposition that the news is (as the Times slogan says) “worth it.”