Fall from Grace

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Members of the BuzzFeed staff at the company’s headquarters a month before major layoffs were announced, New York City, December 2018

Since the early 2000s, journalism has been a precarious and embattled profession. The news industry has suffered staggering losses of revenue and employment, and journalists have become the targets of scorn and even hatred. The entire field has been politically reconfigured, as media outlets identified with different ideological positions provide their audiences with alternative versions of reality.

The profession’s fall from grace and the industry’s transformation have been all the more dramatic because of the advantages the news media enjoyed in the late twentieth century. Newspapers in most cities had consolidated down to one or two dailies, leaving the survivors with a near monopoly on print advertising in metropolitan markets. Although cable was making inroads, the three big broadcast networks still dominated television news. High-quality journalism itself was never very profitable in print or on TV, but it gave media organizations prestige and influence, and with their profits from advertising, they could afford it.

The monopoly held by the major news media also had the effect of marginalizing radical views on both ends of the ideological spectrum, creating the appearance and to some extent the reality of a broad bipartisan consensus in public life. Bolstered by healthy profit margins, the press was also able to cast itself as uncompromised by any commercial or partisan interest. Journalists and publishers who lived up to that standard of independence in the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the revelation of the Watergate scandal, and other great exposés became heroes.

This was the world that today’s older journalists knew when they were young. It was a world that concentrated power and profits but also enabled the press, insofar as its leaders were willing, to keep watch on government and business. David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be (1979), which focused on four exemplars of the era (CBS, Time Inc., The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times), was a chronicle of that world at its height.

In the early stages of the digital revolution, the print media saw the new technology as a means of reducing production costs and expanding their audience, and they were so self-confident that they gave away the news for free online. But print circulation began falling, and as the Internet developed in the early 2000s, Google and sites such as Craigslist siphoned off ad revenue the newspapers had depended on, and Facebook would drain away more. The full force of the digital wave hit a decade ago, at the same time as the Great Recession, plunging many newspapers into bankruptcy and leaving others struggling to survive.

Yet there were promising signs too. New online media were creatively applying the unprecedented capabilities of digital technology, fostering new forms of public exchange, and receiving major infusions…

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