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Sugar Daddy Journalism

I came across a recent column by Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan when some online acquaintances of mine, who really ought to know better, approvingly cited her description of the Denver Post’s ownership as “corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.”

Given Sullivan’s undistinguished record as a connoisseur of quality news reporting, any endorsement of her work should come only after thoughtful reflection. None was apparent in the social media comments I saw. I did not interject because I don’t use Facebook as a platform to annoy and proselytize. For that, I have this column.

The news peg for Sullivan’s rant was the latest round of layoffs at the Denver Post, taking its staff of journalists to below 70. At one time, Sullivan noted, the Denver Post and its rival Rocky Mountain News had more than 600 newsgatherers on salary under a joint operating agreement. (JOAs were a form of legislative grace from antitrust laws that slowed, but could not halt, the demise of most daily papers across the country. News staffs remained separate while functions such as printing and advertising sales were combined.) Under the ownership of the venerable E.W. Scripps company, the Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009 – no strip-miners necessary.

Local journalism, in the form practiced for most of the past century at the Denver Post and across the country, is doing a great job destroying itself. As it does so, two sorts of owners can step in to fill the void.

One is the sugar daddy – a billionaire who, in time-honored tradition, buys a news brand in order to boost his own profile and influence. Once we had Hearsts and Pulitzers, now we have Murdochs and Sullivan’s very own Jeff Bezos. Bezos stepped in to save the Washington Post when the Graham family was at the end of its tether. According to Business Insider (a publication in which Bezos also has an investment), the Amazon founder said he signed the first $250 million offer sheet he received from the Graham family, not even bothering to conduct corporate due diligence.

Had Bezos not rescued the Post, it is entirely possible there would have been no Post newsroom for Sullivan to join when she left her position as the New York Times public editor in 2016. Bezos stabilized the newsroom staff, beefed up the organization’s digital publishing side, greatly expanded the site’s engineering (because great websites need great engineering even if great journalism does not), and implemented techniques such as testing stories with alternate headlines to determine which attracted more viewership.

Most of what happens at the Washington Post isn’t “local” journalism. In my opinion, much of it is not journalism at all, unless you credit content of the sort found on Daily Kos and Think Progress as journalism. They are echo chambers that select, slant and hype what they report to fit the prejudices of their audiences, whom they exhort to share their content to attract more revenue-producing eyeballs. The same can be said of similar right-wing sites.

At least the Washington Post is still here, and as long as it survives there is always a chance it will get better. Simply removing the Ted Baxter-ish slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” from the top of its website would make it better. It’s a small ask.

But there are not enough sugar daddies to go around. Capitalism being what it is, when a long-established business model reaches the decay phase of its life, opportunistic buyers will seek to “harvest” the diminishing cash flow by cutting costs fast enough to stay ahead of diminishing revenues. It has happened in many industries, from passenger steamships to dial-up internet and videotape rentals. It is less like strip-mining than it is like making an emergency landing when an airplane suffers engine failure. Absent a sugar daddy, the future for the Denver Post does not look like that of the Washington Post; it looks exactly like that of the Rocky Mountain News.

What is all the whining about? All these fine local journalists are merely being fired; they are not being exiled. The barriers to entry in the news business have never been lower. The Denver Post’s laid-off reporters and editors are readily available to satisfy Colorado’s demand, whatever it is, for investigative reporting, or 24/7 coverage of local crime and sports, or sitting through every city council meeting. Although since public access TV was invented, anyone who cares enough about what happens at the city council can see for themselves. Or, these days, they can hear about it from a Twitter feed.

Today’s journalists need not even sully themselves by selling advertising to support their endeavors. Google, Facebook and their wannabe competitors are happy to do that for them. For Heaven’s sake, people support their families by vlogging about their lovers, their livers and their cats. (Oh, so many cats!) Are journalists today so unskilled in the tools of their trade, so disconnected from their audience, so helpless when it comes to understanding their own business, that they can’t do what the average cat vlogger does?

Some of them, yes. They sit around and hope for a sugar daddy to rescue them. When that doesn’t happen, they may take buyouts and blame Donald Trump for ruining the careers that rotted away beneath their own feet.

The others will adapt. Some will thrive. They may find work on new news outlets like Axios or Vox, or satisfy their political cravings at sites like The Hill, or get technical training and cover a beat in a professional journal whose subscribers care enough to pay for that expertise and enterprise. Or they may simply make a living as independent reporters on topics of great interest to them and their audience.

Or, if worse comes to worst, they will keep us informed of everything that happens in the lives of their cats.

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