NY — On Friday, the National Press Club offers solace (and a free meal) by giving tacos to recently laid-off journalists in recognition of a brutal streak that seems to deliver daily bad news for an already struggling industry.
For anyone who works in the media, the list is intimidating and endless.
News website The Messenger closed on Wednesday after having only been in operation since last May, abruptly leaving about 300 journalists out of work. The Los Angeles Times laid off more than 100 journalists in recent weeks, Business Insider and Time magazine announced staff cuts, Sports Illustrated is struggling to survive, the Washington Post is completing acquisitions of more than 200 employees. The Post reported Thursday that The Wall Street Journal was laying off about 20 people in its Washington bureau; There was no immediate comment from a Journal representative. Pitchfork announced it was no longer an independent music site, after digital publications BuzzFeed News and Jezebel disappeared last year.
And journalists from the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News and Condé Nast magazine have gone on strike to protest the way management was addressing business problems.
All of this is happening as the nation’s overall employment outlook strengthens. American employers began 2024 by adding 353,000 jobs in January, a surprising hiring surge. A government report on Friday showed that last month’s job gain — about double what economists predicted — surpassed December’s gain of 333,000.
Not so the news industry. Seeing all the damage is what led the Washington-based National Press Club to open its weekly Taco Night to laid-off colleagues and offer a free one-month membership to people who need a networking opportunity.
“It is very important that when someone loses their job they know that they have some support,” said Didier Saugy, the club’s executive director.
This is not a new problem
The news business has been in free fall for the past two decades, beginning when much of its advertising moved online to opportunistic technology companies. Advertising is still a big part of the problem, although there are more complex reasons and circumstances unique to individual media that also play a role.
The situation is dire in larger, national organizations and smaller communities. A Northwestern University study published in November estimated that the United States has lost a third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its journalism jobs since 2005.
The country loses 2.5 newspapers a week, a pace that is accelerating, according to the study. As of the end of November, staffing firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimated that 2,681 journalism jobs were lost in 2023, and that number has increased by hundreds since then.
One industry observer, Jeff Jarvis, wondered in his buzz machine website this week: “Is it time to give up the old news?”
“What’s happening is inevitable,” Jarvis, author of “The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Printing Age and Its Lessons for the Internet Age,” said in an interview. “Publications have been trying to preserve their old ways and their old models, and it’s time for them to realize that it’s not working and now it’s too late.”
While there have been some successes in the media’s shift to paid digital subscriptions (most spectacularly The New York Times), the failures are far more numerous. Even The Washington Post, whose subscriptions rose during the Trump administration, has seen a decline, prompting its management to acknowledge that it was too optimistic in its expansion plans and needed to cut costs.
Optimism created by billionaire owners in the Post, with Jeff Bezos, and the Los Angeles Times, with Patrick Soon-Shiong, has faded when it became clear that they had no magic solutions. With COVID and the Hollywood strike tightening the advertising market, the Los Angeles Times estimated it was losing $30 million to $40 million a year.
Philanthropy has offered a boost to some news organizations, including The Associated Press. The MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation last year pledged $500 million to seed solutions in the news industry, but such efforts cannot match the scale of the problem, Jarvis said.
“The industry,” he said, “jumps from false messiah to false messiah.”
Tech companies are also moving away from news, said Aileen Gallagher, a journalism professor at Syracuse University. Through its AI-powered generative search experience, Google is much less frequently directing users to individual news sites, she said.
The editors also have She complained of losing significant business to Facebook and much less frequently features news articles that drive people to news sites. Twitter, now X, was once like a second home for journalists, but that has ceased to be the case since Elon Musk’s purchase of the site.
“What news companies may have finally realized is that nothing good will come from accepting the scraps that social and search platforms will give to the news business,” Gallagher said.
The 2020 election turned out to be a boon for many media outlets, but there are questions about whether the public will be as interested in following political news this year.
The road ahead is just as bumpy.
Some of the troubled outlets also have unique problems that contributed to their problems. Sports Illustrated sent layoff notices to employees after the company that publishes its content lost its license to do so. Messenger’s failure infuriated observers because its business plan – a centrist website that attempted to appeal to many rather than a narrowly defined audience – was an uphill battle to get started.
“It was corporate negligence and human cruelty on an epic scale,” Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Axios and Politico, told the Puck newsletter. “Anyone who knew anything about the economics of media knew they would die quickly, spectacularly and sadly.”
That sadness is evident in the messages left on social media by journalists fired from The Messenger and elsewhere.
“I was laid off from my job as a political writer in August and haven’t been able to find another job since,” Tara Dublin, author of “The Sound of Settling: A Rock and Roll Love Story,” wrote in X. “I’m terrified of the future of journalism and how someone will be able to trust any news source.”
Steve Reilly, an investigative journalist at The Messenger who saw his job disappear this week, wrote: “If you have been affected by recent journalistic layoffs at Messenger or elsewhere, know that it is not your fault. “It has nothing to do with you or your work.”
On Thursday, former employees of The Messenger filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York against the company, alleging that it had not given them required layoff notice.
Jarvis, who also teaches journalism, said he doesn’t pretend to know the answers. He said a change in attitude is needed, moving from looking for a way to monetize content to seeing journalism as a service to the community.
“We need journalists in society and we will find a way to meet that need,” he said. “I am a long-term optimist. But in the short term, the situation will be ugly.”