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News industry off to brutal 2024 start as mass layoffs devastate publishers, raising questions about the future of journalism


The news industry is enduring a brutal start to the new year, with outlets large and small across the country hemorrhaging reporting staff as legacy business models that kept much of the industry afloat for decades collapsing in plain sight.

The rapid contraction, coming even as the presidential election cycle heats up and public attention and revenues historically mount, has been on full display this month, with the first few weeks of 2024 ushering in a spate of painful layoffs at news organizations from coast-to -coast.

The Los Angeles Times slashed its newsroom by more than 20% earlier this week; TIME cuts dozens of staffers; and Business Insider said it would trim its workforce by 8%. Meanwhile, hundreds of staffers at Condé Nast, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and others staged historic walkouts to protest planned cuts at the outlets.

The recent round of layoffs, while pronounced, are part of a much larger and unrelenting storm battering the journalism industry. Over the past 18 months, most news organizations have been forced to make difficult decisions to reduce their workforce.

At the national level, CNN, The Washington Post, NPR, Vice Media, Sports Illustrated, Vox Media, NBC News, CNBC, and other organizations have cut swaths of their reporting staff. At the local level, layoffs have been nearly constant, with newspaper giant Gannett cutting hundreds of employees, and small outlets carving out already lean operations.

The latest round of layoffs coming after 2023 marked the worst year for job cuts in the journalism sector since Covid-19 ended the world in 2020, with roughly 2,700 jobs eliminated.

While each outlet is struggling with its own unique challenges, they all are facing brutal industry headwinds ushered in by the internet revolution and other technological advances that have fundamentally changed the way the public consumes news and entertainment.

Audiences that once reliably surfed traditional cable channels and consumed news websites or newspapers are instead absorbing content and spending time on platforms such as TikTok and Netflix, leading to massive declines in ratings and traffic. That shift in behavior has led brands to spend their marketing in emerging digital arenas, particularly given their ability to offer advertisers powerful tools to target audiences with precision.

Making matters worse, news outlets have seen their online advertising businesses vanish as social media and search giants devour much of the industry’s dollars. Research produced by Columbia University in October estimated that technology titans Google and Meta should pay news outlets $14 billion per year in revenue for their search traffic and content, a figure it described as “conservative.” But technology companies have resisted paying publishers for their content and launched high-profile fights to block legislation intended to recover some of the lost revenue.

“The ad industry doesn’t need the news industry when there are so many other ways to purchase attention, and so many better ways to target users,” Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, told CNN.

The change in behavior has also meant news consumers are canceling subscriptions to newspapers and cable providers, cutting precious revenues even further.

“I’m sorry to say that I don’t see turning around most legacy outlets,” Jeff Jarvis, the Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, told CNN. “Their proprietors, with few exceptions, did not adapt to the internet. They held onto their old business models — advertising, subscriptions, and the attention economy.”

“Many of them are now controlled by hedge funds, which will not invest or innovate,” Jarvis said, adding that cost-cutting is the “predictable response to a worsening downward business spiral,” which “will make the products of these publications only worse, which will accelerate the spiral.”

“The death of newspapers — and magazines and linear TV — has been foretold and has not yet occurred,” Jarvis said. “The fall might come now.”

The hollowing out of large news institutions comes at a perilous time for America. Antidemocratic candidates have deliberately worked to undermine faith in news outlets as they look to seize power in election contests from coast to coast, attacking those tasked with the duty of holding public officials accountable.

“To say that trust in the news media has declined is correct, but too vague,” Rosen said. “The reality is that destroying confidence in the practice and products of journalism is a potent and successful political strategy, as with Steve Bannon’s ‘flood the zone.’”

That lack of accountability means dishonest figures seeking higher office, and those in positions of power, could avoid crucial scrutiny, leaving the electorate less informed about the vital decisions they will have to make in November at the ballot box.

Margaret Sullivan, a columnist at The Guardian who previously wrote about media for The Washington Post and The New York Times, told CNN in December that she is worried about the larger consequences the deeper cuts in the news business will have on the country. Sullivan said that it was not only “heartbreaking to see the loss of these jobs,” but warned the action would do “damage to society.”

“The loss of journalists contributes to the exponential growth of news deserts in large swaths of the nation — and that’s deleterious when misinformation is rampant,” Sullivan said. “Democracy needs an informed electorate in order to function and that is tragically dwindling in many regions.”

For a time, there had been hope that billionaire ownership of news publications could offer stability to the industry as it wore off legacy business models. Recent months, however, have cast doubt on that optimism, with Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s Los Angeles Times makes significant cuts to their newsrooms.

But despite the widespread gloom, there are some encouraging signs popping up across the industry. Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, noted some local news outlets have found financial sustainability.

“Billionaire newspaper ownership is coming under fire lately because of Soon-Shiong’s fecklessness and because Jeff Bezos has hit a few bumps with the Post, although I think that will prove to be temporary,” Kennedy told CNN, pointing to recent successes at The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Boston Globe newspapers.

“There are reasons to be optimistic given the hundreds of independent local news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years,” he said. “The challenge is that coverage at the hyperlocal level is hit or miss, as some communities are well-served and others — especially in rural areas and in urban communities of color — tend to be overlooked.”

But Rosen cautioned against the reliance on deep-pocketed philanthropists to sustain journalistic enterprises in the long-term.

“Journalists have to take it upon themselves to treat sustainability as their problem, but this is not what they signed up for,” he said. “They signed up to do stories.”