The uncertain role of capitalism in the future of media
7 min read

The uncertain role of capitalism in the future of media

Why scale and the profit motive are at odds with the mission of local journalism.
The uncertain role of capitalism in the future of media

A song to read by: "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," by Sharon Van Etten

What I'm reading: "In defense of degrowth," by Giogos Kallis

The growth of degrowth

As a rule of thumb, I generally try to keep my capitalist criticisms out of Medialyte, because I believe that the desperation of the media industry calls for immediate solutions rather than hypothetical theories. But when it comes to predicting its future, trying to chart the direction in which the world of journalism needs to head to avoid the problems plaguing it now, I am inclined to indulge myself.

In the past few months, I have found myself enthralled with a theory called “degrowth,” which the academic Giorgos Kallis defines as an “equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions.”

Degrowth is environmentalism with political teeth, a school of thought that intertwines political, economic, social, and environmental theory. It says, in short, that we cannot meaningfully reverse the damage we are doing to the climate unless we abandon or augment many of the economic systems we employ today.

As is often the case, when you pull one thread you end up unraveling much more than you bargained for, and my fascination with degrowth has since bled into all sorts of other subjects of study, including the media industry. Over the past few weeks I have thought deeply about how the forces of technology, capitalism, scale, and labor intersect, and I have, unsurprisingly, come to only a half-baked conclusion of where they might lead.

While the details may be out of focus, the general picture seems quite clear: that it is hard to see a healthy future for the world of journalism so long as the entropic forces of the internet, in tandem with the profit motive, go unchanged. Like putting out fires with gasoline, the problems of the industry seem unsolvable with the tools currently at our disposal.

Below is a brief explanation of why I think this, as well as a potential stop-gap solution that, rather than solve the issue, hints at a new direction the industry might consider heading.

I am become internet, destroyer of journalism

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a robust local news ecosystem improves the quality of life of its members. For the sake of democracy, government accountability, and community health, we need to preserve local news. If you are reading this newsletter, you probably will not fight me on these points.

Here’s the rub: Prior to the advent of the internet, natural geographic boundaries insulated news markets from competing against one another. If I lived in Seattle, no story written in The Boston Globe would ever cross my path, unless it was of some groundbreaking nature. Newspapers in my hometown could squabble over my attention, but if I wanted to be informed about the daily goings-on of the world, my most viable option was to subscribe to a local publication.

When the internet arrived, it dissolved these natural boundaries. Now, not only were the local Seattle newspapers competing against each other for my attention; they were competing against The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, as well as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Esquire, and soon Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as well. In short, every entity on the internet drew arms against each other over the same fixed amount of attention.

Gradually, the publications with the smartest leadership and the most resources began to capture increasingly large shares of user attention. Once they captured that attention, they used it to generate revenue, which translated into more resources, which increased the likelihood that they would be able to capture that attention again in the future

Over time, these advantages continued compounding, leading a handful of news publications to grow in wealth and resources, while the vast majority of them began to wither and die on the vine. By last count, something like 25% of all news organizations have shuttered in the last two decades. As this process continues, the publications consolidate into a dwindling number of increasingly powerful organizations.

This is more or less where we are today.

In which I perfectly predict the future

When it comes to predicting what will happen in the future, two schools of thought prevail. On one hand, proponents of creative destruction and the free market argue that the incumbent powers will enjoy a brief monopoly until they themselves are usurped by more agile, innovative organizations, thus restarting the process. They see the media massacre unfolding before our eyes as capitalism working as intended, all feature no bugs.

On the other hand, as journalists across the country know, as this process rinses and repeats, jobs get lost in the wash. With every consolidation and instance of creative destruction, the newly ascendant forces triumph because they are able to do more with less; this is a bedrock feature of capitalist creative destruction: automating away human labor to reduce overhead and increase profit margin.

However, the concepts of scale and efficiency, which the forces of unfettered capitalism prize so highly, are at odds with the kind of people-based relationships that undergird healthy media ecosystems.

While I am in no rush to defend Facebook, it serves the purposes of its creators well: It reaches 2.8 billion with some 58,000 employees — very efficient. In the world of journalism, that same model offers a similarly alluring profit margin, but there is a structural issue: a few behemoth news organizations with outposts in every city are not qualitatively equivalent to hundreds of independent news organizations.

In the former set-up, the structure of such a network leads wealth and influence to accumulate in the hands of a concentrated group of individuals. It drains resources from communities and deposits them in the pockets of a small group of people, far removed from the communities that enrich them.

These people do not have the best interests of those communities at heart, because the health of those communities are not their primary priority; their overarching concern is the well-being of the behemoth. The social media model, in other words, grafts poorly onto the media model.

This leads us to an impasse: To be healthy, communities require local journalism, but the unbounded scale afforded by the internet and encouraged by capitalism are inimical to that effort. So, if local journalism and profit- and scale-oriented media cannot coexist, what do we do?

Have a heart

Luckily, journalism has always prided itself on serving a greater god than profit. For better or for worse, journalists see themselves as engaged in a mission that requires capital but does not seek it as the end goal.

Journalists want to serve readers, strengthen communities, unearth the truth, and hold power accountable. The challenge, especially in recent years, has been to find a financial model that can bankroll that mission.

Myself and many others far smarter than me have devoted years of sleepless nights to solving that problem. Whether it is advertising, hosting events, charging subscriptions, inventing micropayments, accepting donations, selling merchandise, minting tokens, or any other of the litany of ways the media has devised to support itself, no model or combination of models has proven resilient enough to withstand the entropic force of the internet.

My proposal, then, is this: that in some form or another, media publications pledge to preserve local news, at least until we arrive upon a solution that offers a more stable way forward.

This could take a variety of forms, ranging from the radical — profit-splitting, growth cessation, market delineations, resource-pooling — to the casual, such as simply directing readers back to their local news organizations, sharing best practices, or lending technical expertise.

The real value, I admit, would be less tangible than symbolic, but I think such a pledge would offer a show of solidarity that would strengthen the industry. The leading figures in the industry need to acknowledge that a winner-take-all outcome does not benefit readers, the people whom all news organizations purport to serve.

If we could even accomplish just that — an acknowledgement that the best outcome for readers is a robust media ecosystem, with a plurality of local, independently operated organizations — I would be substantially more confident in the future of the industry than I am now.

Join or die

Given the direction the industry is currently headed — and I say this as someone whose job as a media reporter increasingly feels like an obituaries writer — I cannot imagine that local news persists in any significant form 15 years from now.

No one in the industry can meaningfully control the external forces, i.e. the various horsemen of the tech apocalypse, from applying increasing pressure on the media industry. But, what we can do is pledge not to cannabilize ourselves.

Consolidation of power, in any industry but especially web-based ones, weakens consumer agency, divorces people from their local communities, degrades the environment, and siphons away resources. My larger anti-capitalist beliefs are showing here, and I do believe these statements apply across all industries, but they are especially poignant in the world of media.

As news organizations consolidate, the quality of life of everyone they aim to serve will decline. We need to make a conscientious choice to stop, in their tracks, the forces sapping local communities of accountability journalism and transferring that power to distant, concentrated overseers.

This suggestion is blatantly at odds with the financial forces that drive the world of business, but a new generation is beginning to recognize the moral, logical, social, and ecological bankruptcy of a purely profit-driven mindset. We cannot make decisions about intrinsically necessary institutions, such as the ones responsible for conveying information to those who need it, solely based on what turns the tidiest profit.

I would not ask this of every industry, and I would doubt that such a feat would be possible in most other industries. But in journalism, a profession staffed by people legitimately putting service over compensation and mission over capital, I think it is possible. Possible, and very necessary.

Some good readin'

— I wrote about Defector Media's new harassment-protection policy, what a concept! (Adweek)

— The first issue of Pipe Wrench is here, and it is impressive. (Pipe Wrench)

— Speaking of the false promises of scale! (The Atlantic)

— Obviously you have to subscribe to Charlie Warzel's Substack. (Galaxy Brain)

— Also, I was meta-mentioned in Study Hall on Monday, so let this be your biannual reminder that if you are a writer of any sort, but especially a freelancer, you should be there. (Study Hall)

Cover image: "Two Comedians," by Edward Hopper