“I don’t think a union is right for BuzzFeed,” CEO of the company Jonah Peretti has claimed. The unfortunate truth is that many people in positions similar to Mr. Peretti’s share his views. Even more unfortunate is that unions are not always able to save careers, especially in industries that have become as volatile as the news media industries have. Even in spite of this, an increasing number of digital news media staffers are courageously working towards joining their physical news media counterparts in unions such as the Writers Guild of America.
While the snowball effect seen in the digital media employees mobilizing to join unions is certainly a positive, the situation is still dire. Since the start of February 2019, there have been over 2,000 digital media jobs terminated in the US. While there are those who speculate the layoffs at BuzzFeed are the result of the harsh reaction to their report on Michael Cohen’s alleged perjury, Peretti, and many other CEOs in his position, offer a different reason: profit maximization. With fewer employees to pay, companies are able to turn more of their annual revenue into profit.
Even more is that this trend of layoffs is not reserved to digital media either. Physical news outlets across the country are also racked with layoffs in the midst of massive consolidation and a sharp decline in advertising revenue, which was once the bread and butter of the news industry. Newspapers were once a 40-billion-dollar industry. This is no longer the case. Moreover, an increasing number of advertisers opting for a cheaper, digital or mixed advertising portfolio. Additionally, the number of jobs in news media as well as the number of publishers of news media has drastically decreased as companies merge or fail.
This sort of consolidation and concentration of large-scale, national and regional newspapers and destruction of local media ecosystems shifts the focus of news away from the local and the close-to-home towards the national and international. This leaves towns, cities, and municipalities vulnerable to corruption and reliant, generally, on only a single or small number of sources of information, which can be particularly dangerous to the ideals we hold dear, such as equality, democracy, and freedom.
Journalism and news media ought to be considered a merit good. That is to say, that it is necessary for there to be high quality news – in spite of decreasing profit margins – due to the positive externalities associated with high quality news. These externalities include an increase in national and international knowledge and meaningful participation in democracy. Unfortunately, providing this service for a loss of profit is not feasible for a for-profit corporation, but there are alternatives.
One solution that seems apparent is to increase funding for PBS, though this requires legislation that very few politicians are interested in. Studies do show, however, that countries with stable, publicly funded, and high quality news have increased national and international knowledge in citizens across most education levels. Individuals can help bolster our public media system through donations or by pressuring their representatives to provide increased funding for our public news providers. Additionally, in terms of regulation, increasing the use of cross-media subsidies, which pool a percentage of massive media corporations’ annual profits to be used by public news sources and smaller, local news sources, could prove very successful.
Following this round of layoffs, BuzzFeed employees did, ultimately, vote to unionize. In the face of declining revenue and profits, massive conglomeration and consolidation, and the upheaval of old methods of journalism and the rise of new, digital media, the journalists who tell the news are not going out without a fight. It’s because they too share the belief that high quality journalism ought to be provided that they don’t give up. Profits to their company, risks to their lives, and all other dangers may have to come second to exposing the truth. Unless the government is willing to intervene in this market failure, all we can do now is look for little victories, like the one BuzzFeed’s employees are working towards, as we work towards our little victories.
By: Jackson Gibbs
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