January 6, 2022

In 2010, in a piece for Inside Higher Education, I wrote the following: “Without editors monitoring political campaigns, voting rights would be trampled and elections, routinely rigged. Candidates wouldn’t run for office; they’d purchase it.”

It was one of the many pieces I have written over the years as I documented the decline of the newspaper industry and the forces that factored into that.

Because of that work, I have some ideas for leaders to implement. Here’s the history and here’s what we can do about it.

At one time, newspaper journalism reigned supreme in the hierarchy of the business. Television had always competed with print, but you couldn’t take a set into the restroom. Newspaper publishers were complacent. After all, their product had survived desktop computing and later, slow internet. Moreover, owners made a tidy profit and were celebrated for safeguarding constitutional freedoms and democracy.

Corporate life was good.

With hardly anyone noticing, a new type of innovation evolved: PC televisions. These devices transformed the TV into a primitive desktop and differed significantly from portable TVs like the Sony Watchman, introduced in 1982. Network news was network news, no matter how it was delivered. Personal computing allowed content masquerading as news to enter the same empty box of wires and lights, an allusion to the famous 1958 Edward R. Murrow speech.

He prophesied that in 50 or more years, historians would find “evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”

We found it.

Reading levels plummeted. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts released a survey titled “Reading at Risk,” documenting that less than half of the adult population read literature. The study provided a literacy snapshot “at a critical time, when electronic media are becoming the dominant influence in young people’s worlds.”

Mobile devices became the rage, along with e-commerce.

Spurred by exposes like “The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works — and How It’s Transforming the American Economy,” activists protested superstores that harmed local merchants along with the newspaper advertising base. But eBay and Amazon went largely unscathed in the digital shadows of the web.

Journalism schools joined the bandwidth bandwagon, believing iPods and social media would inform digital natives. The medium became the moral, beginning with a noteworthy 2004 failure at Duke University, which gave iPods to 1,650 incoming students, believing they would be used for homework instead of music. Uh-huh.

Then came mobile phones in wireless classrooms. Professors began banning them because they distracted rather than informed.

Everyone faced Facebook.

Publishers, used to hefty profits, had invested heavily in technology, listening to marketers calling themselves consultants. Media chains bellied up. Losses mounted with annual newsroom downsizing, falling 26% since 2008.

Journalism organizations like the Knight Foundation advocated for technological convergence when society needed a moral one. The first Knight News Challenge in 2006 poured $22 million into a five-year effort to reinvigorate the news business.

In 2006, daily weekday newspaper circulation totaled 52.3 million. By 2011, it fell to 44.4 million, a drop of 15%. By 2021, it totaled 24.2 million, a drop of nearly 54%.

To offset losses, media corporations bought community newspapers, demanding return on investments. Those that didn’t deliver were closed, creating news deserts. Between 2004 and 2016, more than a third of newspapers changed ownership, reshuffling portfolios to maximize earnings.

Without realizing it, publishers were writing their own obituary for a few measly percentage points of profit.

As a result, social media stole the news from reputable sites and then distorted it, hatching conspiracy theories that ranged from a fake moon landing to flat earth. The uninformed public was incapable of recognizing despots on their desktops.

Accredited schools and colleges dropped “journalism” from their names, preferring “media,” “strategic communications” and “information.” Then some prestigious ones dropped accreditation altogether, claiming it impedes innovation.

Journalism enrollment dropped 8.7% between 2020-21.

However, one bright spot emerged. Ordinary people were using their mobile devices to document racism and other social ills, culminating in Darnella Frazier winning a Pulitzer Prize citation for documenting the murder of George Floyd. She was on the scene; reporters weren’t.

Considering job loss in journalism, and declines in major enrollment, the time had come to require the study of journalism as general rather than professional education. Someone has to speak truth to power.

This brings us to the current day, with no happy ending.

The emerging generation doesn’t read inked paper. It watches screens. One study notes that nearly 54% of college students use digital devices 50+ hours a week, usually to check social media. They sleep an average of 6-6.9 hours per day, or about 45 hours per week. There are 168 hours in a week, so they are using devices for 57% of waking hours.

These individuals are your target subscribers.

Considering costs and challenges, we in the hereafter must accept these hard truths and teach these new realities to our undergraduates:

  1. Stop the presses or limit print runs. Everything is digital. Use savings to hire more reporters and editors, especially at student media organizations where for too long privileged students who can afford to work for pennies have been the majority.
  2. Dispatch reporters into the community to photograph and record sources, events and spot news. Beats are in again.
  3. Work with journalism organizations, politicians and media lobbyists on a regulation model to receive payment for pilfered content on social media.
  4. Pressure e-commerce giants to help subsidize news for lost advertising revenue. (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post but owes dues to the industry.) So do other billionaires who made their fortunes at our expense.
  5. Focus content on fundamental freedoms, including social justice and civil and voting rights; otherwise, journalism loses its status as the Fourth Estate.
  6. Diversify newsrooms and content to appeal to changing demographics, realizing that by 2055, America will lack any single racial or ethnic majority.
  7. Use links and/or post fact checks and references on every article, to combat fake news, and emphasize this in journalism courses across platforms.
  8. Highlight content that uplifts and affirms community to change attitudes of millions of American voters who believe that journalists are enemies of the people.
  9. Emphasize news rather than opinion or entertainment because the latter can be found everywhere on the internet, especially on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, et. al.
  10. Offer newsletter subscriptions for specialized content, such as politics, commentary, music, movies, etc., with news as the primary product.
  11. Promote media and technology literacy and journalism as general education to train future generations to use their devices to hold authorities accountable. Journalism schools can recruit and replenish enrollments from these ranks when non-majors show interest or potential.
  12. Support nonprofit outlets and networks like States Newsrooms, using their content with proper attribution.

If you think these recommendations have been tried before or are futile, you may be right. Then you have a responsibility to conceive new proposals to save the profession.

I make my case in the bibliography below, documenting how we got from there to here.


Sounding the Alarm on PC TVs 

Bugeja, Michael J. and Candace Salomone. Editor & Publisher. July 12, 1997, Vol. 130 Issue 28, 48. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357395388_Sounding_the_Alarm_on_PC_TVs 

Discusses the advent of personal computer television that competes directly with newspapers in providing information to the American public. 

Excerpt: Publishers have been asking people to read during the technology explosion of the video age (1950-present). Publishers have done so largely on faith and an old newspaper adage: You can’t haul a TV into the WC. Fact is, children of the cable television era are more comfortable watching rather than reading, and increasingly they are watching in every room in the house.

Assault on Orphan Freedoms

Media Ethics Magazine. Fall 2004, Vol. 16, No. 1. Available at https://www.mediaethicsmagazine.com/index.php/100-analysescommentary-past/833528-fall-2004-vol-16-no1assault-on-qorphanq-freedoms

Discusses how assembly and petition, two of the five freedoms of the First Amendment, are being both overlooked and undermined by the Internet in this age of consumerism and government control, threatening newspapers’ advertising base.

Excerpt: Amazon and eBay damage local businesses and sustainable economies. However, activists lodge few protests against these electronic superstores because the “big box” here is a computer monitor in one’s home. 

The Medium Is the Moral

Inside Higher Education. May 20, 2005. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2005/05/20/medium-moral

Discusses what went wrong with Duke’s iPod giveaway experiment, distributing a device meant for music downloads and then wondering why it was not being used for academics.

Excerpt: It has been more than 40 years since Marshall McLuhan wrote that the “medium is the message,” a lesson that Duke University has had to relearn the hard way concerning its iPod giveaway this academic year to some 1,650 first-year students. Almost immediately, the “iPod First-Year Experience” was dubbed a trendy gimmick.

The Media World as It Is

Inside Higher Education. October 3, 2005. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2005/10/03/media-world-it 

Discusses the future of journalism, journalism education, and academic values in an era in which many value opinion more than fact.

Excerpt: Media chains that care more about revenue than reputation have purchased outlets from families that had safeguarded rights in hometowns for generations. Computerization and downsizing of newsrooms deleted reporters from the scene so that they became less visible and therefore, vital. 

How Do We Afflict the Comfortable When They Own Us?

Chronicle of Higher Education. August 12, 2005. Available at https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-do-we-afflict-the-comfortable-when-they-own-us/ 

Advises journalism educators and foundations to train students for the news media that once existed, focused on constitutional freedoms and public accountability, rather than the current one, about profit and technology. 

Excerpt: Because of state budget cuts, journalism programs must rely increasingly on media companies to sustain our training of students to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—a century-old maxim that has been tarnished by comfortable media companies’ losing sight of their news mission and afflicting mostly the journalists who work for them.

Journalism’s New Bottom Line

Quill. Oct/Nov2005, Vol. 93 Issue 8, p31-33, 3. Available at https://www.quillmag.com/2005/10/13/journalisms-new-bottom-line/ 

Discusses downsizing of reporters and investment in technology resulting in unclear boundaries between news and opinion and old and new media in the corporate ecosystem. 

Excerpt: Community journalism suffers in the new corporate environment. Too many executives believe that downsizing reporters and upgrading technology correlates with prosperity. They forget that freedoms in the Bill of Rights are responsible for prosperity, not technology. 

Facing the Facebook

Chronicle of Higher Education. January 23, 2006. Available at https://www.chronicle.com/article/facing-the-facebook/ 

Discusses the failed promise of information technology that was supposed to bridge digital divides and enhance research. Increasingly, however, digital networks are being used for entertainment. 

Excerpt: Unless we reassess our high-tech priorities, issues associated with insensitivity, indiscretion, bias, and fabrication will consume us in higher education. Potential solutions will challenge core beliefs concerning digital divides, pedagogies, budget allocations, and, above all, our duty to instill critical thinking in multitaskers.

The Fundamental Truths of Our Business

Editor & Publisher. August 7, 2007. Available at https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-fundamental-truths-of-our-business,82095 

Discusses declines in newspaper subscriptions with executives wondering where readers have gone and hiring media consultants to help find them. The issue was not where readers but where reporters had gone in downsized newsrooms. 

Excerpt: Because of the stock market, newsrooms layoffs and firings number now in the thousands. Traditional indicators continue to erode: Subscriptions are down; revenues, flat; and earnings, plummeting. It is time to listen less to consultants and more to our conscience.

Half-Truths on a J-School

Inside Higher Education, September 13, 2010. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/09/13/half-truths-j-school 

The move by the U. of Colorado to replace study of journalism with study of information should concern all who care about an informed, democratic society.

Excerpt: Without reporters documenting oppression in the civil rights era, we would not embrace diversity today as a core value. Inequality would be the status quo. Without combat reporters, we would not know the trenches enough to formulate opinions about war and peace. Apathy and/or blind patriotism would be the norm. Without editors monitoring political campaigns, voting rights would be trampled and elections, routinely rigged. Candidates wouldn’t run for office; they’d purchase it.

Journalism and the Assault on Truth

Journal of Media Ethics. 33:2, 99-100. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23736992.2018.1435499 

Discusses how smartphones and universal access were supposed to help journalism credibility because “everyone is a reporter.” That forecast overlooked those who would distort, falsify, or usurp person, place, and thing, usually for self-gain.

Excerpt: Mobile technology was supposed to revitalize newsrooms; citizen journalism, to document truth; and crowdsourcing, to revitalize assembly. Instead, newsrooms were downsized; social media, politicized; and smart mobs, trolled, all factors in the 2016 presidential election.

As journalism jobs decrease, the future of the discipline might depend on general education

Poynter. July 24, 2020. Available at https://www.poynter.org/educators-students/2020/the-case-for-journalism-as-a-gen-ed-course/ 

The increasing power of cellphones coincided with the decreasing presence of reporters. As phones are increasingly being used to document racism, as in the George Floyd murder, maybe it’s time to teach journalism to the populace rather than to those who want to enter the declining industry. 

Excerpt: The choice is obvious: Bemoan journalism’s decline or inspire thousands of opinionated but omnipresent smartphone users. … They may be the only option left to hold government and law enforcement in check.

Understanding journalism (or its absence) in the Age of Conspiracy

Poynter. February 23, 2021. Available at https://www.poynter.org/commentary/2021/understanding-journalism-or-its-absence-in-the-age-of-conspiracy/ 

Discusses conspiracy groups dominating social media, from Area 51 aliens and Bigfoot sightings to deep state cabals and QAnon fanatics, often eclipsing fact-based news.

Excerpt: As such, conspiracy theories have less to do with breakdowns in social machinery, weaponized politics or reason vs. intuition. Polarization materialized as millions of Americans googled answers from affinity groups, increasing screen time while mainstream media downsized newsrooms.

How We Got from There to Here and What Comes Hereafter: Bibliography as Documentation

Poynter. The article you just read.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living…
Michael Bugeja

More News

Back to News