Summary: Conservatives and right-leaning moderates know that in order to get the “full story” they should read not only the Wall Street Journal and National Review, but also the Washington Post and The Atlantic. After all, it’s important to know how the other half of America thinks and feels about the news of the day. However, the media landscape isn’t what it used to be—where once there were nominally nonpartisan broadcast and print media, new nonprofit newsrooms backed by big liberal foundation resources have risen, even as conservative platforms have folded. But that doesn’t mean conservative readers and writers should resign themselves to obsolescence: a combination of foundation giving and visionary leadership could breathe new life into conservative and even less-partisan journalism, while providing the stability and flexibility necessary for new outlets to thrive.
In early 2019, a wave of layoffs hit major media properties. Buzzfeed, McClatchy, Verizon (owner of the Huffington Post), Vice, and Gannett, along with other media outlets, announced over 2,200 job reductions.
Some right-wingers and Republicans—most prominently the President of the United States—chalked the job losses up to discontent with perceived progressive-liberal (or anti-administration) bias in the press. That claim overlooks a key fact of the present media landscape: Some anti-administration outlets are doing gangbusters business. As of late 2018, the New York Times reported a record number of subscriptions, contrary to the President’s “Failing” nickname; the Washington Post previously announced it had cleared one million subscribers—triple its pre-2017 numbers.
But despite an obvious market for “Resistance”-friendly reporting and commentary, especially in America’s wealthiest enclaves like New York and Washington, D.C., the digital behemoths at Buzzfeed and HuffPost had to cut staff, alongside the newspaper chain Gannett, which owns dozens of local papers and USA Today. The smaller cohort of conservative scribblers have also faced difficulty, most prominently with the closure of the Weekly Standard in late December 2018.
For those not providing wish-fulfillment for either the #MAGA tribe or the #Resistance tribe, finding commercial support in the current climate is tough. But if an organization’s reporting helps build the long-term future of the progressive movement, liberal foundation money is available. These organizations will support left-of-center journalism, whether it conducts deep investigations into social problems of concern to left-liberals; holds state-level conservatives to account; provides support for liberal positions on gun control, abortion rights, energy and environment issues, and healthcare reform; or supports the hard-left’s takeover of the liberal movement from its establishment-Democratic rivals.
Stability defined the American political arena from the end of the Second World War through the late 20th century. Commercial factors and government regulations launched a wave of media consolidation, especially in the “three channel” television space. Partisan stability defined the political era as well, with regionally divided Democrats gaining a hammer-lock on the House of Representatives and ideologically rudderless Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon holding an advantage in the Electoral College. Intra-party ideological heterogeneity—conservative Southern Democrats and New England liberal Republicans—contributed to the stable landscape.
This media consolidation and political stability contributed to the ideal of a less-ideological, “objective” press. In practice—most famously in the case of CBS newsreader Walter Cronkite—“objective” meant conventionally liberal.
The Rise and Fall of the Old Model
The American 20th-Century model of a nominally “objective” mass media supported by a network of principally for-profit corporations is unusual both in American history and in comparison to contemporary English-language media overseas (most notably Britain’s highly partisan and sensationalist “Fleet Street” national print media).
Historically, American newspapers were fiercely partisan, often explicitly aligned with a major political party. Party press dated to the very beginnings of the Republic: Alexander Hamilton supported the publication of the Gazette of the United States, a Federalist Party outlet; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of what would become the Democratic-Republican Party supported the rival partisan National Gazette, with then-Secretary of State Jefferson keeping its editor on the State Department payroll. This partisan press adapted through changes in the party system and remained the dominant model of news distribution until the turn of the 20th Century.
The period starting in the 1890s and running through the early 20th Century saw the rise of the mass-market commercial media. These publications under such legendary and infamous publishing figures as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were not known for their journalistic scruples; the New York City press’s sensationalism—the original “yellow journalism”—was for a long time credited with provoking the 1898 Spanish-American War, though some scholarship has called that story into question.
Yellow journalism or not, the press became a big commercial business. Alongside the new commercial newspapers rose the broadcast media, originally radio. After the Second World War, radio would be joined by television and the federal government would adopt a regulation known as the Fairness Doctrine, placing the Federal Communications Commission as an arbiter of political discourse on the so-called “public airwaves.” The Fairness Doctrine required licensed broadcasters on radio and television to provide rebuttal airtime to interest groups and individuals who objected to viewpoints presented on-air; one consequence of the Fairness Doctrine was a legal codification of the ostensibly “objective” model of journalism in broadcasting. Again, the objectivity was more “ostensible” than “actual”; as in the U.K., which retains a Fairness Doctrine-style rule for broadcast news to this day, the beneficiaries were establishment-liberal viewpoints honed at metropolitan universities.
But in 1987, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine after a series of cases called into question the constitutionality of its application. That decision started to break down the nominally objective model in radio and television; the rise of (conservative-dominated) talk radio was one of its most consequential effects. The Fairness Doctrine never covered cable television; the rise of partisan cable news (with Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left) came later.
The newspapers meanwhile continued as they had since the War: They consolidated into single city-wide dailies (the ex-competitors memorialized in a number of hyphenated newspaper names like Journal-Constitution (Atlanta), Union-Tribune (San Diego), or Republican-American (Waterbury, Connecticut)) and raised scads of revenue from classified advertising. These new publications pursued the nominally “objective” reporting ideal.
And then Al Gore (so he says) created the Internet.
Craigslist offered competition for classified advertising; even the major media companies’ efforts to get in on web-based advertising could not recoup the loss of revenue. The 2008 financial crisis and contemporaneous recession made the situation even worse. According to the Poynter Institute, classified ad revenues declined by almost 70 percent from 2000 to 2010. Ad revenue declines continued throughout the second decade of the 21st century; in 2016, GroupM, an ad-buying firm, predicted the worst declines in worldwide newspaper ad sales since the financial crisis. Digital ads increased tenfold from 2001. The corporate, for-profit model of written news rapidly became unprofitable.
In the next installment of Don’t Trust the Messenger, learn about possible alternatives to journalism’s current market failure.