The Pulitzer Prize is journalism's highest honor, and this year one winner no longer is a journalist.
On his last day working for his local newspaper, Ryan Kelly photographed a white supremacist driving a car through a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia. He told the Associated Press that he left the profession because of the long hours, low pay, stress and job insecurity. He was doing digital media work for a brewery when he learned he’d won the award. And as the AP reported, he wasn’t the first journalist to leave the profession before or not long after winning the Pulitzer.
These are tough times for journalism in general and newspapers in particular.
The newspaper industry’s business model is based on being a community’s most trusted and convenient source for public information – all supported by paid subscriptions and ad revenues.
But technology, societal changes and the industry’s own decisions and flaws have severely weakened that model. It’s unclear what model should take its place, or if any can.
Americans now carry more information in their pockets than they can consume, most of it available at no cost. Some is valuable, but some of it is useless, misleading or false. No matter. If you’ve filled up on popcorn and chips, you don’t have much room left for steak and salad.
Two information-providing companies, Google and Facebook, have benefited most from that technology. Both are free because they sell ads from advertisers who otherwise might have supported newspapers.
To some degree, the newspaper industry saw some of this coming long ago. Eyeballs were moving to the internet and paper is expensive, so it undertook a strategy: Give away the product for free online and win those eyeballs. It hasn’t worked. Newspapers haven’t been able to make enough money online – not competing with Facebook and Google. In response, the corporations that own many local publications have cut staffs, boosting the bottom line temporarily but reducing their ability to serve the public.
Other societal changes have conspired against the old model. Our mobile populace is less tied to local communities and more so to national events and communities of interest. We often spend more time interacting with distant people who share a hobby than with our neighbor whose sister’s obituary just appeared in the local newspaper.
Moreover, as America has become more divided and tribal, the marketplace for objective news sources has become less lucrative. It can be much more satisfying being assured we’re right by a TV commentator than it is to read a balanced news story. Why did Fox News’ Sean Hannity, an ally of President Trump, make $36 million last year, according to Forbes magazine, while many print journalists don’t make $36,000? He sells what many are buying.
Some of you might say, “Newspapers are struggling because the media is so liberal and biased.” And I would agree that more journalists lean left than right, and all journalists, and all humans, are biased.
But turn off your TV and read a newspaper, and you’ll find that most of the coverage is about as balanced as can be expected until robots are doing it. Besides, when we think tribally, objectivity looks like the other side.
Newspapers can do some things to counteract these forces, but ultimately the market will decide what’s worth paying for. Who died, who got married, and what your mayor or governor is doing – you won’t always get that stuff from Facebook. And remember, while you’re getting information from it, it’s getting a lot of information from you.
Last year after several years of being the biggest hypocrite ever, I resubscribed to my local newspaper. This column appears on its opinion page.
I’m glad I did. Some days I scan the headlines. Some days I get more involved. But always, I know more about what’s happening in my community than I would have.
Like the one in Charlottesville, it’s a hometown newspaper, not a national publication. And someday one of its writers or photographers may win a Pulitzer.
If that happens, I hope he or she won’t have already left the profession to work for a brewery. It will be everybody’s loss.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.