If newspapers die, can journalism survive?

Over the last 15 years, I’ve watched newspapers around the nation cut back and now must ponder death of news profession itself.

Turns out the death knell wasn’t just for print news but for the news profession itself.

In the past week, massive cutbacks eliminated staff positions at The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, America OnLine and other digital operations where news arrives primarily over the Internet.

Reports Poynter, which follows what is happening in journalism:

BuzzFeed’s meteoric rise in the digital world took a serious tumble Friday. With its fall, the worst week in recent journalism memory ended with even more depressing news.

Major layoffs at BuzzFeed.

The news was not unexpected, but it still rocked the media world when BuzzFeed began slashing its staff. The entire national news desk was purged, according to a tweet from the deputy national editor. Business Insider reported that BuzzFeed News’s national-security team, health desk and Spain bureau will shut down, but that the tech and politics staffs will remain intact

In all, 43 staffers at BuzzFeed News were laid off, according to CNN’s Oliver Darcy. Business Insider reported BuzzFeed News had about 300 staffers before the layoffs.

Poynter.org

A day earlier, the same website reported:

Then Verizon Media, which owns HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo, along with other media companies, confirmed it will lay off about 7 percent of its staff. HuffPost reported Wednesday that “staffers in the U.S. expected to see layoffs in their newsrooms, though it was not immediately clear how the cuts would affect the brand.’’

Then came word that journalists from newspapers and websites across the country were laid off by Gannett. The layoffs included notable names such as IndyStar columnist Tim Swarens, Arizona Republic Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson and longtime Knoxville (Tennessee) News Sentinel sports reporter Dan Fleser.

–Poynter

For some friends of mine who lost their newspaper jobs over the past 15, the news of layoffs came again at the digital news operations.

Megan McArdle at the The Washington Post says journalism itself is “pivoting to dust:

The journalism business has spent years chasing readers across the Internet. There were blogs, online chats, slide shows, listicles, search-engine optimization, infographics, podcasts . . . and, oh, yes, the fantastically expensive industry-wide “pivot to video.” After a decade and a half of this exhausting effort, we now seem to be arriving at the end of the journey: what Robby Soave at Reason.com dryly dubs “the pivot to dust.”

About 15 percent of the newsroom will be laid off at BuzzFeed; 7 percent at the media division of Verizon, which owns AOL, HuffPost and Yahoo. And newspaper chain Gannett swung the ax through several of its publications this week, including the Indianapolis Star, the Tennessean and the Arizona Republic. The brutal round of layoffs was hardly the first to hit the industry, and each new round leaves the newly unemployed with fewer places left to go.

Customarily, this is the moment where the writer offers a plan to save journalism, floating fresh approaches and citing unmet needs. I wish I could do that, and even more, I wish I could believe it. What I believe instead is that we’re watching the destruction of most of the nation’s journalistic capacity.

–The Washington Post (Megan McArdle

I started writing for a political news website 24-and-a-half years ago but also write and shoot photos today for a newspaper owned, by BHMedia. At age 71, I do so as a contract journalist.

When print journalists moved over to Internet-based operations, they often found the wages better but — as the old cliché goes — that was then, this is now.

Internet-based news operations normally run at a loss. For a newspaper like The Washington Post, that’s not a problem since Jeff Bezos — the multi-billionaire who started and controls Amazon — can cover the millions in losses from his pocket change. Owning the Post gives him a place in the town where people like him get attention as agent of change.

Some papers close cover costs with subscriptions. For many, the free Internet is gone but as subscription costs rise, news junkies have to limit which ones they pay to read.

Ad provided revenue for a while but the bulk of Internet ads now to a large tech-oriented sites that have nothing to do with reporting news.

As McArdle notes:

Capitalism created the industry. Pre-capitalist societies don’t have newspapers and magazines; anti-capitalist societies have them, but only in the sense that Grigory Potemkin had villages. No, the journalism business is wedded to capitalism through and through; capitalism just seems to have tired of the arrangement.

And like anyone else whose spouse is losing interest, the industry has tried — oh, how it has tried! — to win back capitalism’s affections, with more makeovers than a Hollywood starlet. As usual, this didn’t resolve the underlying problem: The main competition for ad dollars now comes from massive tech companies that don’t produce content at all.

–The Washington Post

Billionaire Warren Buffett owns BH Media and seemed to see ownership as a principle worth supporting but money also talks, even to the bottom-line boards of directors who want to see profits. Buffett hired Lee Enterprises, a chain operator who sees reductions as the way to go, and layoffs have become routine at the BH Media papers.

Over the last two decades plus, I have wondered if I would outlive my profession as a newspaperman. Now I wonder if the death watch should be on journalism itself.

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