An Extinction Level Event for the News

April 20, 2020 3:11 p.m.

I’ve told you a few times that the news business has been thrown into severe crisis by the COVID19 epidemic. It’s not necessarily the most hard hit industry. Hospitality, travel and related service industries have been far more drastically affected in absolute terms. But those industries were all doing well pre-crisis. They faced no structural challenges to their business models. The news business has been in an evolving and protracted crisis for years.

This week Vox Media – publisher of Vox, SBNation, The Verge, New York Magazine et al. – announced that it was furloughing 9% of its workforce for three months and cutting salaries across the company. This running tally from The New York Times counts an astounding 33,000 news industry workers who’ve either been laid off, furloughed or had their salaries cut since the beginning of the COVID19 crisis. At the risk of stating the obvious the crisis is only six weeks or so old. That is an astonishing number. BuzzFeed aptly calls it a “media extinction event.”

Of course some 20 million Americans have lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis. This is just a tiny fraction of that total. Nor should we assume that all of these shuttered or retrenched non-news businesses will simply pop back once the crisis is over. That’s why the various crisis programs aimed at keeping businesses and jobs in a state of what amounts to suspended animation via payroll support are so critical. If the integuments of commercial life can be preserved – the flow of wages to workers, the payment of health care premiums, the employment relationship of workers to employers – then it will be far more possible for post-crisis demand to lift them back on to their feet.

The outlook for the news business is far more bleak. Many of these publications will never recover. The natural world is full of examples of resilience and fragility. A coral reef which dies because of environmental degradation or climate change doesn’t pop back if the environment or climate recovers. It’s simply gone. Human populations which are famine-prone, malnourished or dislocated by war and crisis are more vulnerable to epidemic disease. The journalism business has been in a period of acute crisis for at least three years. By other measures it goes back twenty years if you figure in legacy and print media. There’s simply no profitability or path forward to fall back on in the midst of such a severe crisis.

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