Can News Be Made Into a Sustainable Business?
This article is part of our special section on the DealBook Summit that included business and policy leaders from around the world.
Moderator: Marc Lacey, managing editor, The New York Times. Participants: Sarah Alvarez, editor in chief, Outlier Media; Edward Felsenthal, editor in chief and executive chairman, Time; Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief, The Atlantic; Errin Haines, editor at large, The 19th; Stephen Hayes, chief executive and editor, The Dispatch; Sara Just, senior executive producer, “PBS NewsHour”; William Kristol, director, The Bulwark; David Remnick, editor, The New Yorker; Danielle Weisberg, co-founder and co-chief executive, theSkimm; Lauren Williams, chief executive and co-founder, Capital B.
“The media” pops up on your smartphone and is thrown onto your front porch. It is transmitted on television sets and is featured in glossy magazines. It’s so varied in so many ways but is similar in one respect: Many Americans don’t trust it.
According to a recent Gallup poll, trust in mass media has hit a near record low: Only 34 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media, while 38 percent of Americans have none at all.
There is, however, a stark partisan divide: A robust 70 percent of Democrats trust the media, while just 27 percent of independents and a mere 14 percent of Republicans say the same.
In a discussion led by Marc Lacey, managing editor of The New York Times, a group of news media leaders gathered at a DealBook conference in New York last week to discuss not only the state of their business but their ever-evolving relationship with the politically divided public they serve.
Among the participants were the leaders of a wide range of start-up news publications, along with the executive producer of “PBS NewsHour” and the top editors of some of the nation’s best-known legacy news outlets including The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Time magazine.
There was overwhelming consensus in the room: The future of the news industry, whose survival they agreed is essential to democracy, is facing profound challenges.
Citing the disintegration of the country’s local journalism landscape, David Remnick, the longtime editor ofThe New Yorker, summed up the problem: “The press landscape we have now is insufficient.”
What began as an exchange about how to reach diverse target audiences — from millennial women to disaffected conservatives — quickly evolved into a debate over the core purpose of the news itself.
In the process, differences emerged about what kind of information to deliver to audiences, how to deliver it most effectively, and crucially, how best to fund it.
“We do need some level of news, but there are so many people that just need basic information,” argued Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, a news organization targeting low-income Detroiters.
Ms. Alvarez offered an example: When she founded her organization in 2016, many renters in Detroit had a hard time finding out who owned the building they lived in. Landlord scams abounded, and the government wasn’t doing enough to prevent them.
Traditional journalism, Ms. Alvarez said, might cover this issue as a news story, but Outlier Media instead took a “preventive approach”: The team created a text message system that allowed residents to look up who owned their house, and then to speak directly with a reporter for assistance on what they learned.
Other editors in the room, too, saw promoting civic engagement as both central to their mission and as a powerful way to reach ideologically diverse audiences.
Danielle Weisberg, co-founder of theSkimm, a popular newsletter targeting women across the country, detailed how her publication has helped register over 1 million women to vote: “That has been not only a way to get people involved with theSkimm as a brand, but also to say our stance on nonpartisanship isn’t that we don’t want you to have an opinion, it’s that we want you to make an opinion but, most importantly, act on it.”
When the publication saw much of its audience struggle with caregiving during the pandemic, she said, the team launched a database to compile parental leave policies. That database now includes information on more than 600 companies.
“For a newsroom that has suffrage at its core, doing journalism that is empowering an informed electorate is the goal,” agreed Errin Haines of The 19th, a nonprofit news organization. And focusing on the issues rather than on the partisan divide, Ms. Haines argued, allowed them to spark conversations with broader audiences.
While nearly everyone agreed that journalism plays a key role in preserving American democracy, there was an array of views on how it should be done.
“I have to say that everything that you are talking about is incredibly familiar to me and different,” Mr. Remnick said in response to Ms. Alvarez.
The New Yorker may cover similar issues — housing for example, or hospice care — he said, but: “You are talking about a totally different formal approach to your audience and how you present this material. I confess, the idea that I would publish a raw database is just not something that enters my mind. Maybe it will next week as a result of this conversation, which is why it’s so fascinating.”
“Who I’m reaching is influenced by how I’m telling,” he added. “A publication can’t do everything, otherwise it does nothing.”
Mr. Lacey, who has worked at The New York Times for more than two decades, acknowledged the politically unifying power of the news when it serves as a utility. That’s why one of The Times’s “proudest moments” is election night, he said, when The Times publishes precinct-level results. The website, he said, becomes “a major place for people of both political parties to find out whether they won or lost.”
“There is a moment on election night where people that despise us for all sorts of reasons go to us for utility,” Mr. Lacey said.
Of course, as Ms. Haines said, “there is no point in making journalism if people can’t afford it.” And so the conversation transitioned to the question of funding a business hurt badly by the hemorrhaging of its longtime predominant income stream, advertising, and other fiscal forces.
“You can’t do a big investigation if you are not covering the city council every day,” said Sara Just of “PBS NewsHour.” You can’t find out who the corrupt mayor is if you are not there every day.” The disappearance of that kind of local journalism, she said, is what “worries me the most. That’s not going to be the for-profit center, but it is how we find out what’s going on.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, whose publication, The Atlantic, put up a paywall shortly before the pandemic, argued for a subscriber-funded model: “Our industry made a mistake 20 years ago by giving away quality journalism for free — we trained readers to expect something that took work, time and energy and funding and we gave it away. And we have to stop doing that.”
Introducing The Atlantic’spaywall brought with it “a different set of anxieties,” Mr. Goldberg acknowledged, such as forcing decisions about which work should be published for free in the public interest and which work to reserve for paying subscribers. He noted that if a reader is coming from a Ukraine or Russian IP address, for example, the publication’s Russian and Ukrainian coverage is free.
“What you said about ‘we made a huge mistake in giving it away for free’: I came to the opposite conclusion,” said Lauren Williams of Capital B, a publication founded this year to deliver “straight reporting” to Black audiences whose views span the political spectrum. “After running a nonprofit for two years, I am totally radicalized.” Ms. Williams argued that there must be at least a segment of news covering essential information that is accessible to people.
“There is plenty of room for different models,” summarized William Kristol, editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a publication spawned by disaffected conservatives during the Trump administration.
However, Mr. Kristol did see a failure by philanthropy: “People can give money to what they want, but I would say if you came from Mars and looked at the distribution of what people are supporting, you would be a little surprised.” Ms. Williams said a lot of people are not aware that there is “an enormous local news problem.”
Ms. Just of “PBS NewsHour,” whose organization relies in part on government funding and often ranks high in public trust polls, waxed somewhat philosophical: “How much money should news make?” she asked.
Despite differences of opinion about news industry forms, functions and business models, one area of consensus was clear: In a fractured, unequal society, at a time when essential local news outlets continue to disappear at a rapid pace, the media’s role in delivering the facts is more important than ever.
Yet the public consumes information in silos. And today, people don’t always agree on what constitutes fact.
Stephen Hayes of the conservative publication The Dispatch emphasized that there are a number of good journalists at Fox New, but what the network’s prime time shows offer is “affirmation journalism.” The danger is telling people “what they want to hear” rather than introducing them to anything that might complicate their view of the world. “And that, I think, is the real crisis,” Mr. Hayes concluded. (Representatives of Fox were invited to participate in the task force but declined.)
Mr. Goldberg of The Atlantic agreed in part: “We are playing by our rules and they are playing by another set of rules entirely. If you have a different understanding and relationship to observable truth, it’s not going to work.”
TheSkimm’s Ms. Weisberg, who described her audience as “not coastal” and “not the left-leaning kind of audience that you have seen traditionally,” said she most fears that some people don’t read anything at all — or consume all of their information from within social media bubbles “that are not only false but dangerous.”
“The enemy,” Ms. Weisberg said, “is how do you get people out of their bubbles.”
Edward Felsenthal, whose Time magazine will turn 100 in March, reframed the issue through a nonpartisan lens.
“I have been really inspired by some of what is happening in the local arenas,” he said, “because one of our challenges as we talk about the divide today is that it is less about partisan identity than about the engaged versus the disengaged.”
Mr. Felsenthal concluded: “We need to look harder at the disengaged.”
Make the News Useful: Whether packaged as a database or as a deeply reported story, what a politically divided nation and readers need is news that offers them essential facts and information to help them make informed decisions about their lives.
Experiment with Different Business Models:From nonprofit to for-profit, subscriptions and donations, the news industry must do what is needed not only to survive financially, but also to provide ideologically and economically diverse audiences the opportunity to learn the facts.
Support Local Journalism: More funding is desperately needed, whether from philanthropic or public sources, to help local journalists cover city council meetings and state legislatures so government can be held accountable. Many collaborations between national and local journalism to achieve those goals are underway.
Saskia Miller is an independent writer and program producer based in Berlin