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Review Essay

Bad News

Can Democracy Survive If the Media Fail?

In This Review

On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News
On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News
By Matthew Pressman
Harvard University Press, 2018, 336 pp. Purchase
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
By Alan Rusbridger
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 464 pp. Purchase
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
By Jill Abramson
Simon & Schuster, 2019, 544 pp. Purchase

In 2004—an ordinary, healthy year for the newspaper business—The Washington Post earned $143 million in profit. Five years later, in 2009, the paper lost $164 million amid a shift from paid print to free digital consumption, the erosion of its classified and local advertising businesses, and the global financial crisis. The collapse of its business model forced round after round of cutbacks, staff buyouts, and layoffs. That year, the Post shut all its domestic reporting bureaus outside the Washington area, including those in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

The Post’s position was typical of the country’s healthiest papers. That same year, The New York Times, facing possible bankruptcy, sold most of the new headquarters building into which it had just moved and arranged a $250 million high-interest loan from the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Around the country, more vulnerable papers closed down or put themselves up for sale. With few exceptions, the great family-owned franchises were being gobbled up by private equity firms with little sense of civic obligation and even less understanding of journalism. 

In the years since, the profession of journalism has contracted and grown ever more precarious. Between 2008 and 2017, employment among newspaper journalists fell by nearly half. In 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that the median annual income of newsroom employees with a college degree was around $51,000—about 14 percent less than the median for all other college-educated workers. Twenty years ago, public relations specialists outnumbered journalists by a ratio of less than two to one. Today, the ratio is more than six to one. According to Fortune, the only professions losing jobs more rapidly than newspaper reporter are letter carrier, farmer, and meter reader. 

How can democratic societies get the journalism they need in order to function?

Those who remain at media organizations feel themselves losing status and credibility. Last year, a Gallup–Knight Foundation survey found that 69 percent of Americans had lost trust in the news media over the previous decade. For Republicans, the figure was 94

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In This Review

On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News
On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News
By Matthew Pressman
Harvard University Press, 2018, 336 pp. Purchase
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
By Alan Rusbridger
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 464 pp. Purchase
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
By Jill Abramson
Simon & Schuster, 2019, 544 pp. Purchase

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