Journalism’s Gilded Cage

By the early 2000s, when I arrived at newspaper offices searching for assignments, the journalism industry was undergoing cataclysmic shifts. The entire political economy of the news industry was changing. The last twenty years have seen a significant transformation in the political economy of the journalism industry. There had been substantial changes in ownership at most all the major media houses, consolidation of corporate control across media properties (cable, print, digital, television, radio), a growing reliance on consumer-focused marketing and advertising strategies, the influential role of gatekeepers like Google and Facebook, a shift towards digital publishing platforms, growing number of newspapers closures, staff layoffs, a greater reliance on freelancers and even so-called citizen-journalists.

“Journalism was being whittled away,” Russel Baker explained, “by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximised by minimising the product.” [Russel Baker, “Goodbye To Newspapers”, New York Review of Books, August 16, 2007]. Things took a turn for the worse due to the 2008 financial crisis, which has continued since. From 2008 to 2019, employment in journalism in the US dropped by 23%. In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom staff worked for newspapers, radio, broadcast television, cable, and digital information services. By 2019, that number stood at about 88,000. [Elizabeth Grieco, “US newspapers have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008,” Pew Research Center, April 20, 2020]. Newspapers have had the sharpest decline in employment. The large regional dailies have shed the most journalists–an estimated 24,000–or two-thirds of the total. Many large dailies, which often had several hundred journalists on staff in the late 1990s, today have only a few dozen. [Penelope Muse Abernathy, “2020 Report: News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?”, The Expanding News Desert, University of North Carolina, Hussman School of Journalism and Media].

The disappearance of journalists has occurred in tandem with the disappearance of newspapers. In the last fifteen years, chains that served local markets, like Knight-Ridder, Media General, Pulitzer, Journal-Register, and Media News, have disappeared. The largest 25 chains today own nearly a third of the 6,700 newspapers that survive in America. Increasingly, private equity and hedge owners have taken control of the print media industry. In 2020, the largest chains–Gannett/Gatehouse, Tribune/Digital First, and Lee/BH Media–own 15 per cent of all newspapers and nearly 30% of all dailies and control over half of all circulation. [Penelope Muse Abernathy, “2020 Report: News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?”, The Expanding News Desert]. The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened matters regarding jobs, layoffs, and opportunities. [Tow Center, “The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker,” September 9, 2020, online here: (last accessed February 2024].

These changes have profoundly impacted what a newspaper can and is interested in covering. “The loss of journalists,” Penelope Muse Abernathy reminds us, “always results in a loss of journalism, as editors have to make hard decisions about which stories to cover and which to ignore. Both transparency and accountability suffer.” [Tow Center, “The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker,” September 9, 2020.] To say nothing about the simple inability to do the actual work of journalism, i.e., to check power, investigate corruption, speak on behalf of the citizenry’s concerns and interests, and ensure the accountability of those elected to political office. Vast news deserts–communities with “limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”–now prevail across the US. [Tow Center, “The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker,” September 9, 2020.]

In parallel, journalism has fallen into the hands of a few media barons–hedge funds, private equity firms, and other investment institutions–who took advantage of the chaos of the 2008 financial crisis and purchased hundreds of struggling newspapers and chains. It was a critical and profound shift in the US media landscape’s ownership structure and operational mission. The investment firms have handled newspapers as a generic investment property. They have financed the acquisitions through debt, instituted aggressive cost-cutting measures, set high revenue goals, restructured pensions and financial structures, laid off staff, froze wages, reduced benefits, and restructured the organisations, placing them far from the local communities the paper may have once served.  [Tow Center, “The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker,” September 9, 2020, online here: (last accessed February 2024].

These new owners have little or no interest in local communities, civic responsibility, or the democratic necessity of serious journalism. The newspaper is merely another money-making commodity and operated as one until it is no longer profitable. There has been a “breakdown of understanding between owners and working journalists and about the loss of common purpose that once united them. It became hard to say anymore who or what a newspaper owner was…Sometimes, the owner…became an ‘it.’ Sometimes, ‘it’ seemed to be a room full of market researchers trolling the world by computer for profitable investment opportunities. Sometimes ‘it’ was a fund manager with neither experience nor interest in journalism.” [Russel Baker, “Goodbye To The Newspaper,” New York Review of Books, August 16, 2007].

The broader media trend is no different; in 2018, Fortune magazine noted that six large media conglomerates dominate much of the US media landscape. [Nicolas Rapp and Aric Jenkins, “These 6 Companies Control Much of US Media,” Fortune, July 24, 2018]. The situation worsened after the mammoth Disney-Fox merger in 2019 and the CBS-Viacom merger shortly after. [Edmund Lee and Brooks Barnes, “Disney and Fox Shareholders Approve Deal, Ending Corporate Duel,” New York Times, July 27, 2018; Edmund Lee, “Young Sheldon, Meet SpongeBob: CBS and Viacom Are Back Together,” New York Times, December 4, 2019]. And although new companies like GoogleFacebookMicrosoftNetflixAmazon, and Apple are rapidly emerging as media powerhouses, legacy institutions dominate the media landscape. “Legacy media still dominate the most visited news websites,” James Curran has pointed out, “and have prominence on Google and Facebook. Their continued dominance partially results from publishers giving away online content for free. At a stroke, their anti-competition strategy undermined online news start-ups’ business prospects and viability. Very few independent news websites have made a breakthrough.” [James Curran, “Triple crisis of journalism,” Journalism, 2019;20(1):190-193].

The internet has not been as revolutionary as our pundits, futurists, and polemicists promised. Online news and political sites remain concentrated in the hands of mainstream news organisations or aggregator sites that rely on the mainstream for their content. [“The top 500 sites on the web,” Alexa online here: (last accessed February 2024)]. Television broadcast media reflects similar trends as a wave of consolidations and purchases have placed more and more regions under single ownership. The overtly right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBG) is one of the biggest local TV station owners, reaching more US adults than any other news platform. [Katerina Eva Matsa, “Buying spree brings more local TV stations to fewer big companies,” Pew Research Center, May 11, 2017]. In 2004, the five most prominent companies in local TV–Sinclair, Nexstar, Gray, Tegna, and Tribune, owned or serviced 179 full-power stations, which had grown to 378 in 2014 and 443 in 2016. [Katerina Eva Matsa, “Buying spree brings more local TV stations to fewer big companies,” Pew Research Center, May 11, 2017].

And the billionaires have also moved in. Wealthy individuals have purchased the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Salt Lake Tribune. In 2013, Jeff Bezos, the founder of retail behemoth Amazon, bought The Washington Post from the Graham family, which had long owned it, for $250 million. Billionaire owner Joe Ricketts shut down DNAinfo, which focused on New York City and Chicago local news, and Gothamist, websites devoted to local news in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington. Ricketts, who shuttered the businesses after workers voted to unionise, said his eight-year-old decision to start DNAinfo was not paying off.

Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul and conservative activist, bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada’s largest newspaper, 2015 and promptly pressured the newspaper staff to cover Adelson and his cronies in a positive light and fired those who failed to comply.  [Brian Flood, “Las Vegas Review-Journal Fires Staffer Over Disloyalty,” The Wrap, May 5, 2016; “Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal Warns Staffers Disloyalty Could Get Them Fired,” June 17, 2016].

Then there is Randall Smith, owner of Digital First Media, who:

Continued to finance his lavish lifestyle by purchasing and then destroying newspapers. His henchmen…laid off hundreds of journalists…[and]…ultimately closed or radically downsized such venerable papers as the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and The Denver Post. At the Mercury News, the newspaper’s printing press was literally dismantled and carted away, which one staff reporter likened to “watching a heart being ripped out.”

[Julie Reynolds, “How Many Palm Beach Mansions Does a Wall Street Tycoon Need?” The Nation, September 27, 2017.

Handing media organisations to corporations and billionaires has enabled “political parties and corporations to work in tandem to subtly or boldly pressure media to produce favourable coverage.” [Anya Schiffrin, “Government and Corporations Hinder Journalists with ‘media capture’,” Columbia Journalism Review, August 29, 2017]. Others have explicit political agendas that they unapologetically deploy through their media organs. Media billionaires like Rupert Murdock explicitly exploit their editorial power to set policy agendas and define discourses that benefit the elite and vested interests. In 2012, an investigation into the actions of Rupert Murdock-owned newspaper News of the World revealed that “the political parties of UK national Government and UK official Opposition have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest…[The press] are also highly skilled, at the level of some proprietors, editors and senior executives, at subtle and intuitive lobbying in the context of personal relationships and friendships.” [Leveson Inquiry Report, 29 November 2012.]

Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post in 2013, and most pundits celebrated the move. However, they failed to note the severe conflicts of interest, given that Bezos’s other business, Amazon, has a $600 million contract for providing services to the CIA [Frank Konkel, “The Details About the CIA’s Deal With Amazon,” The Atlantic, July 17, 2014].

What did they think was going to happen?