As part of a series on America In Context, we are diving into America’s media literacy problem in a new series. Today we’re diving into some of the struggles facing the industry itself.
Less bodies. Employment in U.S. newsrooms dropped by 23% from 2008 to 2019, according to a Pew Research study. And that was before another study found they lost an additional 16,160 jobs last year during the global pandemic, dropping total employment to about 72,000 jobs — just 63% of the 114,000 industry employees in 2008. Traditional heavyweights like ABC News, Fox and The New York Times saw layoffs, as did new media players like Buzzfeed and HuffPost, which cut staff after merging.
Locals flounder. Local outlets, particularly newspapers, have suffered most. Their staff had already been halved before more than 60 local newspapers shuttered in 2020, with six major chains seeing their quarterly revenue drop 42%. “This is part of the existential threat. The closing of local news and declines in staff means there is far less credible information especially for local communities,” Alan Miller, CEO of the News Literacy Project, tells America In Context.
What that means. Less fiscal accountability, for one: Communities that lost local newspapers saw municipal borrowing costs surge by up to 11 basis points, according to a 2018 study. And, also, more division: Local outlets foster a healthy civic life, as research shows they increase voter turnout, reduce corruption, inform citizens, encourage bipartisanship and make elected officials more responsive and efficient. “Sometimes, I think about the Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi,’” Miller says, alluding to its refrain: “You don’t know what you got, till it’s gone’”
Death spiral. What’s worse: There are no obvious signs of let up. Financial challenges are leading the news organizations that do survive to become more nakedly partisan and outrage driven — tactics that drive clicks yet make readers trust media less over time, diminishing its long-term influence. It also has dismayed committed journalists, who are breaking up with the industry in increasingly damning, public, ways.
The A.I. Elephant. Artificial intelligence may further replace jobs. The technology is already here, made clear by a Sept. 2020 headline in The Guardian: “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?” As OpenAI’s new language generator GPT-3 explains in his … err, its … debut op-ed, it has “no desire to wipe out humans.” Still, its existential threat to journalist jobs is self-evident: the Guardian editors even noted that the piece “took less time to edit than many human op-eds.”