Part 1, Journalism Faces New Challenges: The 21st Century Hasn’t Been Kind to Our Fourth Estate

by | May 29, 2019 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

by Nancy K. Herther

(Click here to read Part 2)

A new article by Frank Esser and Christoph Neuberger focuses on innovations in journalism. The “new forms of presentation (multimedia story-telling, immersive journalism), new ways of involving the audience (participatory journalism), new ways of addressing issues and highlighting solutions (constructive journalism), and new forms of automation (robot journalism) and data journalism” by focused on the resurgence of the “democratic functions” of the press.

“Journalism,” they conclude, “must clarify its role in this process of social change if it is to retain its importance to society. Journalists must find an answer to the question of how to react strategically to the loss of their monopoly on the informational and power-scrutinizing role.” Given the decreasing advertising revenue for the printed page in an era of often free, online information and the consolidation and loss, particularly at the local level, of professional news coverage is creating a crisis today.


Gannett, News Corp, New York Times, Tribune Publishing Company and McClatchy are the four largest players in the news business today. They are the most powerful, well-financed of the papers in the U.S. during this transition to digital content. However, the long history of the newspaper providing information and news to the masses and forming the base for the development of American journalism.

Gannett Company Inc. is an international media company based in McLean, VA and its flagship publication, USA Today is the over-the-counter American sales leader. They also own over 100 local papers in 34 states. They describe their vision as existing “to make communities stronger. To do that, we inform them, equip them, empower them — in part as an award-winning news organization, but also as a modern media company acting as a force for the greater good. And in doing so, we’re fostering deep and vital connections between the members of our communities and the world around them.” A few years ago the company spun-off their television media holdings as a new company called Tegna. Gannet’s online reach is estimated at 117.0 million visitors each month. Gannet has a long history of acquiring struggling local papers although they are investing in digital avenues as well.

News Corp, founded in 1979 by Rupert Murdoch, describes it’s mission as “a global diversified media and information services company focused on creating and distributing authoritative and engaging content to consumers and businesses throughout the world.” The company has become the leading global newspaper behemoth. News Corp owns New York Post, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Barron’s as well as newspapers in Australia and beyond.

The NY Times is one of the icons of the industry, founded in 1851 with an estimated 4.3 million subscribers today, with plans to bring that total to 10 million. The company has readership across the globe and is known for journalistic quality and an unparalleled staff of experienced, award-winning writers. The paper has seen a bump in sales and value due to frequent presidential criticism in the past three years and based on the papers award-winning investigative work, which includes a staggering 125 Pulitzers!

Tribune Publishing – publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel and the Baltimore Sun amongst others – is also known for their publication of more local newspapers, lifestyle magazines and other publications. The company sees its role to “create and distribute content across our media portfolio, offering integrated marketing, media, and business services to consumers and advertisers, including digital solutions and advertising opportunities.”

A fourth company, California-based McClatchy, currently publishes 29 daily newspapers, in fourteen states, 50 non-dailies as well as a series of direct marketing operations across the U.S. The company proudly describes itself as “fiercely independent, relentlessly innovative. We’ve always blazed our own trail, finding new ways to extend our reach and deepen our ties to the communities we call home.” The company’s mission is closely tied to their communities: “Everything we do is driven by a desire to make the communities and businesses we serve stronger and more successful.”


Big and small, print and web news organizations are facing a variety of challenges. One familiar to information professionals, is archiving their content. Recently the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism released a major study on the “archiving practices and policies across newspapers, magazines, wire services, and digital-only news producers, with the aim of identifying the current state of archiving and potential strategies for preserving content in an age of digital distribution.” The results were poor: “The majority of news outlets had not given any thought to even basic strategies for preserving their digital content, and not one was properly saving a holistic record of what it produces. Of the 21 news organizations in our study, 19 were not taking any protective steps at all to archive their web output. The remaining two lacked formal strategies to ensure that their current practices have the kind of longevity to outlast changes in technology.” Perhaps even worse, “interviewees frequently (and mistakenly) equated digital backup and storage in Google Docs or content management systems as synonymous with archiving.”

A new New York Times program is working to take the images from the Times‘ morgue – with an estimated 600,000 “pictures, newspaper clippings, encyclopedias and books” into the 21st century by a digitization program called Past Tense. Even this esteemed press is partnering with Google “as part of a technology and advertising partnership” in a system that seems to parallel the Google’s digitization project with libraries in the past decade. However, losing our cultural heritage is just a part of this issue.

A recent report from the Freedonia Group estimated that by 2022 U.S. publishing revenues would fall to $21.3 billion, representing 2.6% annual deceases from $24.2 billion in 2017.” The report believes “the widespread availability of free news content will continue to suppress subscription rates, and growing competition from other providers of advertising space – particularly social media platforms – will constrain revenues from advertising.” And most of these newer resources have little time, interest or resources to consider archiving.

Another major issue is that “instead of employing journalists to write news content, as newspapers and television news programs typically do, most social media sites allow users to share links to articles and other content located elsewhere on the web. Many social media platforms go further by presenting curated news feeds to users.” Freedonia sees their reliance on algorithms and human curators as problematic. “Such systems are not free from bias,” as demonstrated by the evolution of Facebook’s Trending feature.

Another 2018 study, by the Pew Research Center, found similar challenges: “Newspapers are a critical part of the American news landscape, but they have been hit hard as more and more Americans consume news digitally. The industry’s financial fortunes and subscriber base have been in decline since the early 2000s, even as website audience traffic has grown for many. Meanwhile, alt-weekly papers have also seen their circulation drop.”

Some blame newspaper price hikes, and the presses’ “loyalty to print – a dying product.” Research published in Journalism Studies  earlier this year posits that “despite a multitude of digital offerings, the print edition remains the most read newspaper product and the primary revenue driver for the vast majority of newspapers…nearly two-thirds of newspaper readers have stayed loyal to the ‘dead-tree’ edition despite price hikes…twenty years into newspapers’ digital experiment, it is crucial that publishers reassess reader preference and refocus on preferred platforms.” Platforms that are digital.


The changes to newspapers serving smaller markets have created what has been called “news deserts.”  Penelope Muse Abernathy, University of North Carolina Journalism and Media Economics Chair writes a blog on the Expanding News Desert in which she has asserted that “for residents in thousands of communities across the country – inner-city neighborhoods, affluent suburbs and rural towns– local newspapers have been the prime, if not sole, source of credible and comprehensive news and information that can affect the quality of their everyday lives. Yet, in the past decade and a half, nearly one in five newspapers has disappeared, and countless others have become shells – or ‘ghosts’ – of themselves.”

A recent New Yorker article by Jill Lepore noted that “between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting, five hundred or so dailies went out of business; the rest cut news coverage, or shrank the paper’s size, or stopped producing a print edition, or did all of that, and it still wasn’t enough….Between January, 2017, and April, 2018, a third of the nation’s largest newspapers, including the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News, reported layoffs. In a newer trend, so did about a quarter of digital-native news sites. BuzzFeed News laid off a hundred people in 2017; speculation is that BuzzFeed is trying to dump it. The Huffington Post paid most of its writers nothing for years, upping that recently to just above nothing, and yet, despite taking in tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue in 2018, it failed to turn a profit.”

A comprehensive new study released in 2018 by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism estimates that over 1,800 U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage, far more than previously estimated. The report concludes with the warning that “our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished. In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism.”

Another recent study, Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance from the Brookings Institute focused on the long-term damage caused by lack of public scrutiny. They cite a “35% decline in statehouse reporters, who play an important role in gathering information about local governments…we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability – more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems….Recent research in corporate finance provides evidence that the monitoring provided by journalists is useful for improving corporate governance and exposing corporate fraud.”

As the Index on Censorship notes, “of the 3,143 counties in the USA, more than 2,000 now have no daily newspapers and 171 have no newspapers at all.” The Index goes on to note that “there has perhaps never been a time to worry more about the loss of local news reporting than now. The first few months of 2019 saw a swathe of cuts by digital media and traditional print newspaper groups including Buzzfeed, Verizon Media, Gannet, Vice Media and McClatchy, which has added to the rapid shrinking of local journalism and the further growth of the ‘news deserts’.”


A year ago, Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline introduced a bill that would “provide a temporary safe harbor for the publishers of online content to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms on which their content may be distributed.” In practice this legislation would create a limited safe harbor into current U.S. antitrust laws that would allow “news publishers the ability to collectively negotiate with big tech platforms, including Facebook and Google, on factors that impact public access to trusted sources of news, such as the quality, accuracy and attribution of news sources.”

The Act has garnered the support of over 200,000 local and national news publications as well as all major news and press associations. As Cicilline notes, “Facebook and Google make up a duopoly in the marketplace. Nearly 3 out of every 4 Americans get news from platforms controlled by these two corporations. Currently, the duopoly is capturing 83 percent of all digital ad revenue growth and 73 percent of total U.S. digital advertising.” This legislation would allow newspapers, especially smaller presses, to negotiate together with these online news aggregators, which would be financially impossible for most smaller, local presses.

With changes in the balance of the Congress from the mid-term elections, perhaps this legislation will get support in this year’s sessions. A recent Topeka Capital-Journal editorial, the bill was assessed: “News consumption is growing exponentially, but for the past decade, the revenue to news publishers has been on a decline. This is, in large part, because of the unbalanced relationship between news publishers and tech platforms….Because of their market dominance — and access to billions of users — the major tech platforms set the rules for news publishers and determine how journalism is displayed, prioritized and monetized.”

“They also capture the vast majority of all digital advertising dollars,” they go on to note “because of their unique ability to collect consumer data across the web. All of this has degraded the relationship between news readers and publishers and rewarded low quality “clickbait” over quality information from real journalists. It has also greatly reduced the financial ability of publishers to invest in newsrooms at a time when our society most needs great, substantive reporting. It is simply not possible for any individual news publisher to change the basic terms offered by the online behemoths. They are simply much too big and much too influential.”


Jill Lepore

As Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote in a recent New Yorker article, “the way news is covered, reported, written, and edited—has changed, including in ways that have made possible the rise of fake news, and not only because of mergers and acquisitions, and corporate ownership, and job losses, and Google Search, and Facebook and BuzzFeed. There’s no shortage of amazing journalists at work, clear-eyed and courageous, broad-minded and brilliant, and no end of fascinating innovation in matters of form, especially in visual storytelling.” Still, the journalism industry is bleeding, and at a time when solid information and decision-making has never been more critical across the globe.


Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

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