Three people on a subway train read newspapers.
Three people on a subway train read newspapers.
(Photo: Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

Forget the Billionaire Saviors of Journalism

The start of 2024 has been catastrophic for news outlets all over the country, even the ones owned by billionaires. What could an alternative look like?

America’s media institutions have had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start to 2024. The unfolding crisis has been headlined by The Messenger dissolving after less than a year, major layoffs at the Los Angeles Times, and Sports Illustrated falling into licensing limbo.

The over 500 media jobs eliminated so far this year reflect a broader, worrying trend. By this year’s end, according to one recent estimate, America will have lost one third of all its newspapers and two thirds of all its newspaper staff since 2005.

The losses have been particularly acute in poor and remote communities, leaving ever expanding news deserts all across the nation.

The collapse of news outlets – especially local papers – is robbing our communities of indispensable watchdogs. The disappearance of reporters from city council meetings and public safety hearings is creating oversight vacuums that leave citizens in the dark and breed ever more shady dealings that let the wealthy exercise undue – and undetected – influence.

How did we get here? How did a country once chock-full of influential newspapers morph into a land of news deserts? One major factor, says University of Pennsylvania media studies scholar Victor Pickard, has been the disintegration of the advertising model that media has relied on for well over a century.

The media we have left are increasingly resorting to variations on the subscription model to make up for lost ad revenue. Some early paywalls appeared at the turn of the millennium, but the practice truly picked up steam a decade later.

Good reporting simply takes far more resources to produce than it can possibly recoup in digital ad dollars. The answer? A real commitment to public media funding.

Charging users for access to content has worked well for some outlets, but subscriptions haven’t been enough to replace ad funding in most cases, especially for larger publications or outlets that serve less wealthy audiences.

Other media efforts have counted on the benevolence of billionaires to fill in the gaps left by departing ad dollars. But resorting to billionaire help creates real concerns about the influence of exorbitantly wealthy owners on content, and the richest among us have increasingly been unwilling to foot the bill for quality journalism. The Washington Post, owned by the third-richest man alive, offered buyouts to bring its headcount down by 240 this past fall after laying off 20 staffers at the start of 2023. L.A. Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong’s net worth of nearly $6 billion did not save the jobs of the 115 workers that the paper laid off in January.

Fifty years ago, well ahead of the advent of the internet, if a local business wanted to get their message out to the public, they often had only one option: the local newspaper. That same business now has a whole host of options, from buying ads on podcasts to native advertising on social media.

Newspapers haven’t just lost their monopoly on print advertising. They face a new, lucrative digital ad marketplace that Google and Facebook have almost entirely captured. The digital first media ventures that looked poised to take over in the 2010s – think BuzzFeed,Vice News, or Complex – now all find themselves, at best, struggling on life support.

We have, to be sure, recently seen some exciting developments in nonprofit and worker-owned journalism, but these proposals remain limited in scope. The nonprofit model has its own flaws, and these assorted fixes also do little to address the fundamental tension between the profit motive and providing important information to the public. Given all this, a growing number of voices are calling for a fundamental rethinking of how we value journalism.

“Another way of looking at it is that the information produced by journalism should always be and should have always been treated as a public good,” Victor Pickard recently told “And that, by its very nature, is not something that’s easily monetized.”

Good reporting simply takes far more resources to produce than it can possibly recoup in digital ad dollars. The answer? A real commitment to public media funding.

The United States does, of course, invest some money in public media. Last year’s federal appropriations allocated $535 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private nonprofit corporation tasked with investing in public radio and television.

And some promising experiments are taking place at the state level, with governments including California, New Mexico, and Washington devoting public tax dollars for local news coverage.

But that funding amounts to no more than a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to revitalize and sustain news. A 2022 study comparing funding globally found the U.S. spends just $3.16 per capita on public media, compared to $142.42 per person in Germany and $110.73 in Norway. Spending as much on journalism as the United Kingdom does on the BBC would mean $35 billion a year going to sustaining coverage.

We need, as The Nation’s John Nichols recently argued, a “Marshall Plan” for journalism. Absent a major spike in funding, our depressing current media trends appear bound to continue as ad dollars dry up and greedy hedge funds essentially sell off outlets for parts.

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