“NEWS-SUB ONE! WHO ARE YOU — AND WHERE THE F*** ARE YOU?” The terrifying voice roaring across the newsroom was directed at me, and there was nowhere to hide. The only advice I’d extracted from my surly veteran neighbor on my first copy-editing shift on a national newspaper was “cut from the end — and do it quickly”. The coalface grunts were numbers, not names, referred to only by computer log-ins, and nobody had bothered to define the word decimation for me. But that was why the irate editor was hunting me down — to give me a blistering (but, as I’d learn, not coruscating) re-education. “Decimate” can be controversial. It originates from executing one in ten mutinous Roman legionaries pour encourager les autres, so means to reduce by 10 percent. Its use to mean “drastically cut” was forbidden. If the error slipped past a sub-editor, their chief-sub would pick it up. If not, the Chief Revise Editor’s blue pencil would excise it on the final proof. Pedantry? Perhaps. But precision was sacrosanct, and the same fastidiousness was applied to facts, accuracy — and truth. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I was fortunate to begin in journalism when this process still existed, and the internet hadn’t yet — literally — decimated revenues. The Chief Revise Editor, deemed expensive and expendable, was an initial victim of the first wave of the web-revolution redundancies. Soon, interns were publishing unchecked copy on the website of a “paper of record” to cut costs and compete with news aggregators. The war between “dead tree” newspapers and tech giants had begun, and — to coin a cliché to make an editor of old spin in their grave — the first casualty was truth.
This conflict has been the defining story of journalism over recent decades — trying to stem the hemorrhaging of advertising revenue to aggregator giants such as Facebook and Google who profit from the news that they appropriate and disseminate, while somehow continuing to provide quality journalism. Or simply to survive.
As a result of the theft of their labor, news publishers have lost billions in revenue and hundreds of local papers have closed, creating “news deserts” in communities across the world. In the US 60% of counties now have no daily newspaper, and 171 have no coverage at all. Over the past decade, newsrooms declined in size by almost 50%, and last year the US media shed more than 7,800 employees. Department of Labor statistics show that newspaper jobs fell by almost 70% in two decades.
And then the world changed. Enter the coronavirus, throwing the drowning industry a pair of concrete slippers. As an elderly institution with chronic underlying health conditions, the press was already fighting for its life. Despite the tumultuous times causing demand for news to surge, advertising revenue has plummeted with businesses in lockdown. Newsstand sales have also been hit hard, with many titles taking drops in circulation of 40% or more — a double-whammy that reduces cover-price income while making the product unappealing to the remaining advertisers. Boosts to online visitor numbers as people stay home don’t come close to making up lost print advertising revenue, still the lifeblood of most newspapers, and the few companies maintaining advertising budgets often don’t want their brands associated with coronavirus content.
The result? The virus has turbocharged the industry’s decline, with hundreds of titles closing and thousands of journalists losing their jobs. By May, The New York Times estimates, 36,000 news media employees had been laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut as a result of the pandemic in the United States alone.
Many in the industry also fear that print readers, whose numbers were already dwindling pre-pandemic, will lose the habit of reading a physical product and never return to the “dead-tree” publications that manage to survive. This could be the final nail in the coffin of print journalism, according to Roy Greenslade of The Guardian: “The biggest news story in a lifetime is killing off the very industry that exists to report it, delivering the coup de grace to businesses that were already in the process of dying,” he says. “Newsprint — the transmission of news by ink on paper — might not recover from the contagion.”
This danger is compounded by the hatred of a free press from a president who proudly states that “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants”, and threatens, like a true despot, to revoke the licenses of media organizations he perceives as enemies. Trump’s anti-media tropes, repeated and tweeted ad-infinitum, include: reporters are “scum”, “the failing New York Times”; “CNN is fake news”; the press is “the true enemy of the people.” He also unlawfully bans reporters who ask questions he dislikes from the White House, including CNN’s Jim Acosta in 2018 and Brian Karem, Playboy’s White House correspondent and a CNN analyst, last year. In both cases, the courts overruled the White House after legal challenges, with Karem beating a Justice Department appeal in June. After the win, he tweeted: “You cannot beat us down on police lines. You can’t intimidate us by pulling our press passes. You cannot deny us due process. We were here before you. We will be here after you.”
Nevertheless, Trump’s assaults on the press have increased as his approval ratings plummet thanks to his responses to the pandemic and protests. In May he blamed the “Lamestream Media” for the civil unrest in a tweet describing journalists as “truly bad people with a sick agenda” who “foment hatred and anarchy”, then gloated when rioters tried to storm CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. This month he implied that journalists were complicit in looting and murder during the protests: “If you watch Fake News CNN or MSNDC [sic], you would think that killers, terrorists, arsonists … would be the nicest, kindest most wonderful people in the world,” he wrote in a tweet, followed by “It is almost like they are all working together?”.
Trump also often normalizes violence, and champions its use against the press. When the Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte assaulted a Guardian correspondent for asking “obnoxious questions” in 2017, Trump’s praise for the attack was cheered by thousands of supporters. This environment of open season on journalists means that those wishing to silence people raising awkward topics feel they can act with impunity. If the US President can simply ban inconvenient reporters, what might you do where the rule of law is … you? If someone holds your feet to the fire, you needn’t just gag them with legislation. Why not literally gag them and eliminate them? As Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president with whom Trump boasts a “great relationship”, commented in 2016: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination.”
This isn’t empty rhetoric. In October 2018 Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and long-time thorn in the regime’s side, entered the Istanbul Saudi consulate to obtain marriage papers. Instead, a Saudi hit-squad murdered and dismembered him. Trump refused to condemn Saudi Arabia despite both the CIA and UN concluding that its leader, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the killing, and with impeccable timing called him his “friend” in a fawning tweet posted 18 months to the day after the murder. The same year Khashoggi was killed, in the US a gunman who had expressed hatred for the Annapolis Capital Gazette on social networks entered its newsroom and killed five staff members. This trend is global. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), reveals an intense climate of fear that has wide repercussions. As Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary-general, says: “If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger.” Since this 2019 low-water mark, things have got infinitely worse.
A civil-war atmosphere is exactly what now exists in the US, but it’s no longer only in political debate; it’s on the streets. There was a time when only autocratic tin-pot regimes ignored press cards. Those days are over. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the US hundreds of reporters have been assaulted or arrested by state forces, often live on air, while clearly identifying themselves as media. In some cases violence seems to occur because police identify the victims as journalists, and deliberately target them. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, which monitors these attacks, there have been more than 430 incidents since May 26, with the vast majority perpetrated by police. As a result of some of these attacks, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit accusing Minneapolis of breaking the constitutionally enshrined freedom of the press.
The impact of the pandemic has been devastating, but at least there is hope of a vaccine. For the other, possibly greater, existential threat — big tech — there is no promise of developing immunity. Even before the current crisis, Google and Facebook controlled three-quarters of digital advertising income and received 90% of all new revenue, leaving traditional outlets scrambling for ever-diminishing crumbs. What can be done to curb the dominance of big tech? With valuations that surpass the GDPs of entire countries, financial measures have little impact. As a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook a record $5 billion. This sounds like a big deal. Yet for a company recording nearly $56 billion in revenue, it’s a drop in the ocean. When news of the fine broke, Facebook’s stock rose by almost 2%, adding $10 billion — double the penalty — to its value. So sanctions aren’t enough, but the political will for action has appeared limited under an administration with an ultra laissez-faire anti-regulation agenda — and when companies can make or break a campaign with an algorithm tweak. Recently, however, the political headwinds appear to be changing.
A bill with bi-partisan backing, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, has proposed an exemption to antitrust rules to allow news outlets to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook. Multiple antitrust investigations are also being carried out by the federal government, state attorneys general and Congress. Likely in a bid to pre-empt such action, Twitter has banned political advertising, while Google is preventing political advertisers from targeting voters based on affiliation and tightening restrictions on “demonstrably false claims”. Facebook, however, has said it will not even fact-check political ads. In addition to changing some unpopular policies, tech giants are on a financial charm offensive to counter the growing criticism of their takeover of news. Google’s $300 million Digital News Initiative, which has spent more than €140 million on news innovations in Europe, is now being expanded to the US and has recently launched a global “Journalism Emergency Relief Fund” to support small news organizations. Not to be outdone, Facebook is rolling out Facebook News, which promises $100 million annually over three years to news organizations for running their articles.
Why the benevolence? Cynics would note that Google’s move into European funding began when it faced opposition from legislators, and the money was allocated from a marketing budget. The News Initiative was announced two weeks after the EU accused it of abusing market power, which led to a €2.4 billion fine in 2017, and two subsequent fines that could cumulatively cost the company €8.2 billion. The expansion of the initiative into North America came in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election as politicians began to seriously discuss breaking-up tech companies.
The battle has intensified as a result of the recent protests, with Twitter marking two false Trump tweets as misleading and adding a warning to another where he stated “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Trump responded by threatening (of course, on Twitter) to “strongly regulate” or shut down social media platforms. Facebook, meanwhile, refused to censor Trump, leading to resignations and a virtual staff walkout. As a result of the backlash, it now says it will “review potential options” for such content.
It seems that despite their efforts to circumvent media regulation, world events have led to the big tech behemoths being drawn in to Trump’s war. But their efforts to provide sops to the media may be too little, too late. Whether or not the money they have offered is a form of lobbying, it raises other questions as we navigate the new world order. How desirable is it for Google and Facebook to be patrons of the journalists who are supposed to hold them to account? Do we want reporters to be the paid pipers of big tech? And while some financial help for the dying industry is welcome, being thrown these bones won’t save news.
So, what will? In 1921 CP Scott, the Manchester Guardian editor, wrote: “A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly … its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted… Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” As I learnt as a cub journalist that first day in the newsroom, decimation matters. Facts matter. And now, more than ever, journalism matters. But Scott’s maxim, it seems, has been reversed: in the digital echo-chamber, comment is sacred, but facts are optional. Radical solutions, such as Australia’s plan to impose a 10 percent “news tithe” on Google and Facebook revenues, must urgently be considered to save journalism. Before the virus time was already running out for the battered and bleeding fourth estate, and the pandemic has drastically worsened the prognosis. For Covid-19, we strive to find a vaccine; for the climate crisis, we look to Extinction Rebellion. The same urgency is needed to address the news ecosystem’s existential emergency.
FACTBOX: “I’m getting shot!”
- Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist, was left blind in her left eye after being shot by police. She said: “I would say there is no way that anyone had looked at me and not known that I am a working journalist. That said, police have been pretty clear that they don’t care if you are working journalist.”
- Omar Jimenez, a black CNN correspondent, was arrested while broadcasting live. Despite explaining that he and his team were members of the press, and adding “We’re getting out of your way”, he was handcuffed and led away.
- Ali Velshi, an MSNBC host, was shot in the leg by police firing rubber bullets while broadcasting live. “We put our hands up and yelled, ‘We’re media!”’ he said. “They responded, ‘We don’t care!’ and they opened fire a second time.”
- Ed Ou, an NBC News photojournalist, was attacked along with a large group of other journalists who had positioned themselves against a wall to allow the police line to pass. “They literally started throwing concussive grenades in our direction, in the middle of the journalists,” he said. Despite Ou showing his press credentials, officers maced him in the face and struck him with batons. He was left bleeding from a head wound.
- In the same incident, the writer Molly Hennesy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times was repeatedly shot in the leg with rubber bullets and her colleague, the photographer Carolyn Cole, suffered an eye injury. In video footage of the incident the terrified journalists can clearly be heard repeatedly telling their militarily-equipped attackers that they are reporters.
- Michael Adams, a Vice News correspondent, having been thrown to the grown by police, was casually pepper-sprayed in the face at close range by a passing officer while holding his press pass above his head and repeatedly identifying himself as a reporter. The chemical assault looked very much like a direct response to his clear statement “I’m press”.
- While troops attacked peaceful protestors to clear a path for Trump’s infamous bible photo-op, the Australian 7NEWS reporter Amelia Brace and her cameraman, Tim Myers, were attacked by park police and the national guard live on air, having already been hit with rubber bullets. An officer struck Myers in the torso with his shield then punched his camera, before Brace was clubbed with a baton by another. After they had fled, Brace told the studio presenters: “You heard us yelling that we were media, but they don’t care.”
- As Kaitlin Rust was broadcasting on WAVE3 News an officer took aim and repeatedly shot her and her cameraman with pepper balls. “I’m getting shot! I’m getting shot!”, Rust screamed as viewers watched live. She later said: “We are fortunate enough to be protected by our Constitution, but we are still being targeted by the people who swore to protect it … When I saw a police officer look me in the eyes and intentionally hurt me — for no reason, and without fear of any consequences — it shook me hard.”