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“Whitening of the Media”: As Pandemic Cuts Ravage Newsrooms, Diversity Is “First Thing That Goes”

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At a time when many journalists are risking their lives to cover the coronavirus, media companies are slashing jobs and salaries. Over the past week, hundreds of journalists at Vice, Quartz, The Economist, BuzzFeed and Condé Nast have been laid off. In April, The New York Times estimated 36,000 employees of news media companies had been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the pandemic. We speak with award-winning journalist and former editor of The Denver Post, Gregory Moore. He says, “Advertising has fallen out of these newspapers because of the economic shutdown, and it has led to devastating layoffs and furloughs … at a time when the public really needs quality information more than ever.” We also speak with freelance journalist Angely Mercado, who was laid off in March.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we end today’s show looking at the future of journalism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a time when many journalists are risking their lives to cover one of the most significant stories of their lifetime, media companies are slashing jobs and salaries. Over the past week, hundreds of journalists at Vice, Quartz, The Economist, BuzzFeed, Condé Nast have been laid off. In April, The New York Times estimated 36,000 employees of news media companies had been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the pandemic — 36,000, and that was a month ago.

The crisis is not new. The size of America’s newsrooms have been shrinking for years. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, nearly 3,400 journalists lost their jobs in 2019. Another estimate put the toll at nearly 8,000. The Pew Research Center recently reported U.S. newspapers have shed about half of their newsroom staffs since 2008.

We’re joined by two guests. Gregory Moore is the former editor of The Denver Post, which won four Pulitzer Prizes under his tenure. He’s past chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, former board member of the National Association of Black Journalists. His recent article at Pulitzer.org is headlined “How Will the COVID-19 Crisis Affect Local News Businesses?”

And we’re joined by Angely Mercado. She’s a freelance writer, researcher, based in New York, has written for The New York Times, Vice, The Nation, among many more. In her new piece for CNBC, she writes, “I got laid off on Friday the 13th — and had to move back home. My new side hustle is writing obituaries for $200.”

Well, Gregory Moore and Angely Mercado, welcome to Democracy Now! Greg, let’s begin with you. Lay out the scope of the problem. We’re talking about tens of thousands of media workers all over this country. And at a time when those in power have to be held most accountable, newsrooms are shrinking and being shuttered.

GREGORY MOORE: Yeah. Thank you, Amy. You know, this has been going on for a decade. And it just so happens that this trend, you know, sort of runs smack dab into the biggest news story of a generation, certainly since 9/11. And so, you have this incredible thirst and hunger, from a confused and dismayed public, for accurate, quality information at precisely the same moment where advertising has fallen out of these newspapers because of the economic shutdown, and it has led to devastating layoffs and furloughs, you know, two-week furloughs, two-month furloughs, in some cases, at a time when the public really needs quality information more than ever.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Greg, first of all, greetings. It’s been several years since we’ve had a chance to talk.

GREGORY MOORE: Good to see you, Juan. Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask you, in particular, about this whole issue of the for-profit model in journalism, and especially some of the vulture funds, which you are familiar with, like Alden Global Capital, which took over The Denver Post and many other newspapers around the country, and it’s been called by Vanity Fair the “grim reaper” of American journalism, and by Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post media critic — she called it “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.” What’s been the impact of companies like Alden Global Capital in this particular crisis now, the coronavirus crisis especially?

GREGORY MOORE: You know, it’s a good question, Juan. I think the role has been one of consistency. Nothing’s changed. A lot of those organizations don’t really understand journalism. They don’t really care that much about journalism. They don’t really interfere in the coverage of news. All they care about is the financial side of the house. And as long as a profit margin could be maintained, it’s up to the editors to figure out what they can and cannot cover.

But the impact of that, that is a relentless erosion of resources in newsrooms, have really left them crippled when it comes to being able to do the essential accountability reporting and to fulfill that public trust role that is really the heart and soul of journalism as it’s been practiced in America, you know, for — since the founding.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s your sense of potential solutions for once we get past this pandemic? There are some groups, like Free Press and other media advocacy groups, that are calling for some sort of government infusion of funds into the news business. How that would work, if it could even get through Congress? How it would — if it could survive a presidential veto, how it would work? Do you think that we must stick with the advertiser-driven model, or is there a place for nonprofit, socially responsible models for producing news in America?

GREGORY MOORE: I think the latter is the future. You know, the for-profit model, I mean, newspapers and journalism has always really been about profit, ever since we engaged in collecting advertising to put in newspapers, right? But the question is whether the advertising model that has been in place has just collapsed. And it has. And mainly it’s collapsed because of the dominance of Facebook and Google.

So I think a few things need to happen. First, we need to, you know, stop holding onto the ideas of the past. There was nothing really magical about the advertising model. Advertisers happen to also be powerful institutions in our community that newspapers cover, that we had to fight with them all the time. So there’s nothing sacrosanct about that. I think we ought to look at a taxpayer-funded model. I think we should look at a model that’s similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I think we have to look at philanthropy. I think we have to look at social impact funds that might be willing to fund journalism. I think we need to look at everything. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go more specifically into Craig Aaron and Free Press’s proposal. He wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review — he’s CEO of Free Press and Free Press Action — that journalism needs a stimulus of at least $5 billion in emergency funds and that Congress should put a foundation in place to help sustain journalism over the long term.

Craig Aaron wrote, “A journalism-recovery package should include: Doubling federal funds for public media. … Direct support for daily and weekly newsrooms. … New investments in the news [that communities] need.” He mentioned efforts like yours, the Colorado Media Project, where you, Greg, have served on the local advisory committee.

GREGORY MOORE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this project? And when he talks about the sort of model for public television and radio that we already know, he says it has to go beyond NPR and PBS to nonprofit newsrooms all over the country.

GREGORY MOORE: You know what? I think there’s a bunch of really good ideas in there. You know, I don’t know that I would endorse that entire package of ideas. I think I would start with Facebook and Google, which I think have contributed more to the collapse of the advertising model for newspapers than almost any other entity. And if Facebook and Google would step up to their own responsibility here, you know, and put some substantial funding into supporting local newspapers, the local newspaper ecosystem across the country, I think that would be a better place to start. And they’ve already come up to the plate with $300 [million] or $400 million, respectively. I think that’s a fraction of what they need to put on the table.

But yes, I think we should look at taxpayer-supported models. I think, like I said, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a very good model. But whatever we decide to do in terms of looking to the future, we’re going to have to put guardrails and safeguards to protect the independence of the press. And that was the same thing we had to do when we had the advertising model. So, all ideas are welcome. I think we have to think out of the box. And I think that that proposal represents that kind of thinking.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Angely Mercado from New York as one of the victims of this mass of layoffs recently in the news industry. Talk about your personal experience and what it has meant to you in terms of being able to function as a journalist.

ANGELY MERCADO: Well, thank you so much for having me, Juan and Amy.

And yeah, I’m one of the many people that was laid off this March. And these layoffs don’t just affect staffers; they affect freelancers, because I’m now essentially a freelancer again. And when the budget goes down, like not enough to have staffers, that also means that less publications can take on freelancers, there’s less budget to take on extra projects, and freelancers also losing a lot of work, from what I’ve noticed.

And I think it’s been a very daunting time to be back at freelancing, because there aren’t as many job openings, there aren’t as many opportunities. At one point — I think it was late March — I had sent out a pitch to an editor that I connected with on Facebook, and then, after I had done all the work and the pre-research, was told that their budget had just been cut, so they could no longer work with me.

So, there are a lot of people who are being affected in different ways. There are also freelancers that rely on service jobs sometimes, part times, in order to subsidize their income whenever their freelancing budget runs dry. And that’s no longer available. So, different avenues that a lot of journalists and freelancers use to subsidize income, to be a little bit more stable while they wait for an invoice to come through, it’s not available anymore. And it’s just a very scary time to be looking for work and trying to work on projects. And there are also freelancers who maybe don’t have health insurance in the middle of a global health crisis. So, there are a lot of factors, a lot of moving factors, that none of us could have ever really guess would happen or that we could have really prepared for, that are occurring right now because of the pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Angely, you were laid off on Friday the 13th. You went on to do freelance work. You now talk about writing obituaries for $200 at the same time that your own cousin died of COVID-19?

ANGELY MERCADO: Yeah, there’s a cousin on my mother’s side that I called Tía, since she’s older, and she unfortunately passed away due to COVID-19. And it’s very difficult to talk to people who you have also lost their loved ones, for another project, and then to know that I can’t go travel and support that relative’s immediate family. I couldn’t really take time off to think about what was going on, because I was working on different things. I didn’t feel like I could take that time off for myself. And I know that there are a lot of freelancers who are experiencing the same thing. They’re losing friends, community members. They themselves might be sick. And there isn’t much safety net for freelancers in the United States. We don’t have time to really mourn people we’ve lost or to feel like we can reject work whenever we’re feeling emotionally taxed right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to go back to Greg Moore for a second to ask you, Greg: What do you sense, as a veteran journalist and editor, has been the impact on the American public of President Trump’s continued attacks on the mass media as enemies of the people?

GREGORY MOORE: Yeah. You know, I do think that it’s eroded some confidence in the media. I also think it’s incited a lot of contempt. Just recently, you know, some of the reporters who were covering the “open the economy” protests, they were yelled at and screamed at and threatened. You know, I’m just hoping it doesn’t escalate into the kind of violence that we saw in Maryland with the Capital Gazette. But I think it has incited a kind of contempt and anger towards the media. But I also don’t think that it has deterred journalists from doing their job and keeping their eye on the ball, but they do it under much more threatening conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of diversity when you lose local newsrooms all over the country, Greg?

GREGORY MOORE: Yeah, that’s the first thing that goes, is diversity. A lot of times, those people tend to be the last ones hired and the first ones to be laid off. And so, one of the things you begin to see is the whitening of the media. And in particular, I’m really concerned about some of the new digital startups. I mean, when you go and look at many of these digital startups, very few people of color are a part of that system.

And I think that’s the number one thing as we look to the future of media in this country, whatever that is going to become, is to get a recommitment that it should be for everyone. And we need people of color at all levels to be able to participate, tell the stories that need to be told the right way. Right now that’s suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Greg Moore, we want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning journalist, past Pulitzer Prize board chair, former editor of The Denver Post, which won four Pulitzers under his tenure, and Angely Mercado, freelance writer, researcher, here in New York, recently laid off.

And that does it for our show. I want to wish a very happy 11th-week birthday to my new nephew, Miles Escuder Hattis, there shown with, as his dad, Scott, said, the kind of friends you don’t have to stay away from. Well, we hope to make this world safer for you, Miles, and for everyone. And a very love-filled congratulations to Anna Escuder and Scott Hattis on the birthday of Miles.

Happy Birthday to Simin Farkhondeh and Eli Putnam!

Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras, María Taracena. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Denis Moynihan. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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