US Media Is Collapsing. Here’s How to Save It.

Mass layoffs are tearing through US media. To preserve a functioning media ecosystem, we need three things: immediate aid to struggling journalists, public subsidies to smaller news outlets, and eventually industry transformation into a publicly funded system.

Publication closures and media layoffs are pushing many journalists into the world of full-time freelancing, where they compete for dwindling payouts against mounting competition. (Fedor Kozyr / Getty Images)

The requests from independent journalists for grants, including personal emergency grants, have been coming in extra fast lately. Receiving them, me and my staff at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project feel like Lucille Ball grabbing the chocolates on the conveyor belt in that factory episode of I Love Lucy. The pace is picking up as publication closures and media layoffs push many into the world of full-time freelancing, where they compete for dwindling payouts against mounting competition. And as of last week, the Intercept, where my husband Peter Maass worked for ten years, has laid off fifteen of its staffers — including him. The media emergency just got even more personal.

Our family is far from alone. Sports Illustrated, formerly beefy with articles and bodacious with ads, has laid off its staff. Pitchfork, long my go-to for tart and encyclopedic endorsements or takedowns of music, has been folded, in a much-reduced form, into GQ — two media entities that, if they were people, would have never spoken to each other in high school. Meanwhile, the venerable Los Angeles Times announced it would be laying off at least 115 people, more than 20 percent of its staff.

Social media is full of predictable “thoughts and prayers” for American journalism in crisis, but not enough calls for action. Few people have any clue what to call for. What we need now are three major shifts. First, we need to pursue a program of fresh near-term media policy reform. Second, we need a new paradigm for media — an ambitious longer-term transformation in funding and ownership. And third, we need an immediate harm-reduction response for reporters and smaller media entities at grave risk.

On the first count, we should look to civic media models like the one proposed by communications scholar Robert McChesney. Drawing from participatory budgeting and inspired by economist Dean Baker, McChesney’s idea for reform is a local government process where citizens vote on how their county or city’s government media budget should be directed. McChesney proposes a news media voucher program — the Citizenship News Voucher — which, as he wrote in 2010, would make it so that “every American adult gets a $200 voucher she can use to donate government money to any nonprofit news medium of her choice. She will indicate her choice on her tax return. . . . A government agency, possibly operating out of the Internal Revenue Service, can be set up to allocate the funds and to determine eligibility.”

As for whether this reform could happen in real life — it’s already being considered. Washington, DC has started looking at a media voucher plan after a council member introduced a novel bill, which would offer government-funded vouchers to DC residents that they can donate to local journalism venues that they select.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and California are experimenting with a media subsidy model. In 2022, California governor Gavin Newsom modeled a necessary response to the collapse of local news by signing California Assembly Bill 179, which provided $25 million for local reporting in underrepresented places. Government policy to stop the collapse of our media infrastructure is not only feasible but already underway.

Solutions are particularly urgent now. In 2023, local newspaper closures shot up to a dismal 2.5 per week. More than two hundred counties — almost all places where working-class and poor people live — are now “news deserts” where people no longer know what’s happening at their statehouses or their courthouses.

Near-term policy reform is just the beginning, of course. To create an equitable and sustainable media ecosystem, we should change our mindset about and framing of what media is. Not-for-profit media must become the norm — not the exception. Media, after all, is a form of education.

We should, for example, consider a return to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) model, where 6,600 reporters were sent out into the field, underwritten by the government, as part of the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, covering the lives of some of the poorest Americans. Our organization, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, is a version of this — only, given the absence of WPA-style policy programs of late, without the public funding part. We support hundreds of journalists, a good number of them financially struggling, to report on their experiences and communities and then copublish them nationally. But we are a staff of four, and this is a nonprofit that we raise money for each year. The government needs a version of what we are doing on a much larger scale.

Recently I spoke to University of Pennsylvania media scholar Victor Pickard, who offered me a T-shirt-ready quote: “Capitalism and journalism was always a match made in hell.” We need to accept that the problems we’re seeing now are inherent to market-driven media. Pickard puts the beginning of the end of the industry as far back in the ’90s — the 1890s, when sensationalist “yellow journalism” was replaced by the model of “objective” news, only under corporate ownership and for corporate profits. While some romanticize a time when newspaper reporters were working-class ink-stained wretches in visors who didn’t go to college and spoke in the same colorful language of their sources, in truth the news media was owned by the proverbial Citizen Kanes, not by the guys doing the typesetting.

The free market was already struggling to support journalism in a democratic society a century ago, media historians like Pickard note. Sure, in the last ten or fifteen years, this market failure has accelerated, given diminished ad revenue. But it’s simply the extension of a far-longer pattern. We must then consider an alternative: an independent public media system — “public” meaning that we fund it through taxes, and “independent” meaning that it’s not just a government mouthpiece. In an article for Jacobin in 2020, Pickard laid out his vision for what this nonmarket media system would look like. “Our goal must be to reinvent news media, not shore up old commercial models,” he wrote. “Given this chance to unhook journalism from profit imperatives, we can reclaim and reinvent a public good.”

Whatever happens in the years and decades to come, we also need to commit to the third shift: immediate harm reduction to help reporters who are collateral in these media Red Weddings. Journalists are proud of the work they do, yet 72 percent use negative words like “struggling” and “chaos” to describe the industry.

An immediate salve includes new media-worker mutual aid and cooperatives. One example was initiated by Emily Dugdale, thirty-two, who was a union shop steward when she worked at the local NPR station in Los Angeles. Dugdale responded immediately when she saw Los Angeles Times’ bloodletting by, as she tweeted, “putting together an LA mutual aid network for journalists who have been laid off.” The project consists of “one-time grants for small amounts of monetary support, ways for laid-off reporters to connect, and ways they can share their resumes,” says Dugdale.

Mutual aid was a rallying shorthand during the pandemic, a citizen-led strategy that offered consolation, food, and sometimes money to many who had been failed by their legislators. In my last book, I called structures like mutual aid part of the “dystopian social safety net,” arguing that these DIY systems shouldn’t be needed, but also should be encouraged and supported because they are necessary. And the demand for them today is obvious. In 2023, media job losses were up 50 percent. Remaining workers are subject to stagnating wages and rising living costs. Journalists, especially ones from working-class backgrounds with little savings or generational wealth, can’t participate in the media any longer. Media workers need assistance, for their benefit and ours.

Journalists’ cooperatives are another form of media harm reduction. Late last month, one such co-op arrived on the scene: Flaming Hydra, a publication that will be run by its own writers, who will retain the rights to their work permanently. “The horrors of modern corporate publishing are eating the public commons alive every day,” the group stated. Flaming Hydra is experimenting with a new model in which there are “no owners, no investors and no advertisers.” Almost a thousand backers have pledged $41,000 to support the collective of sixty journalists, writers, and artists.

When Dugdale officially launched the LA Journalists’ Mutual Aid Network a couple of weeks ago with the help of other journalists, it immediately raised $3,000 for anyone laid off from the Los Angeles Times. So far, over forty people have signed up to give support. When asked why they went to the trouble, she answered simply, “People need this.”

My organization, and now my family, knows that reality all too well.

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Alissa Quart is a writer, critic, journalist, editor, and poet. Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of several nonfiction books, most recently Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream.

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