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Who Will Pay for the Free Press?

Print isn’t dead yet, but the old model for how to deliver the news might be. Newspapers continue to lose circulation, while the digital side of the news struggles to earn enough to survive. Yale Insights talked with David Leonhardt, a columnist at the New York Times, about the present moment in journalism and what the future might hold.


This is a complicated time for journalism. On the one hand, the work of reporters is at the center of our national conversation. National papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are regularly breaking major stories, including a near-daily stream of stories about the Trump administration’s alleged entanglements with Russia and sexual misconduct among the famous and powerful. On the local level, journalists continue to write stories that effect change, as evidenced by the Pulitzer Prizes awarded last year to smaller papers in Oakland, California;  Charleston, West Virginia; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Storm Lake, Iowa.

But for the newspaper business, this is a time of peril. Circulation figures for print newspapers have plummeted since their peak in the 1980s, falling to levels below daily readership in 1940, when the U.S. population was less than half what it is today. There has been a 50% drop in advertising since 2006, and a decline in the number of newsroom employees since 1990 of almost 60%. One extreme example: the San Jose Mercury News, which had 440 newsroom employees in the 1990s, is down to 39 after its most recent round of layoffs.

While all papers are suffering, the national papers seem to be weathering the storm better. In the last two years, they have seen spikes in their digital numbers, driven largely by interest in the presidential campaign and its aftermath. Nearly 2.5 million people pay to access the Times; the revenue from digital subscriptions now tops what the company gets from print advertising.

In 2016, the New York Times tasked a group of seven reporters with reviewing the totality of the paper’s work and determining the best way forward. The group produced an internal report recommending even more focus on the digital side.

David Leonhardt, a 1994 graduate of Yale College and a columnist at the Times, led the internal review. He sat down with Yale Insights for a conversation about the state of journalism and what its future might look like.
 

How will the Times need to change in coming years to remain competitive both journalistically and economically?

About two years ago, the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, asked me to form a small group in the newsroom to review all of the Times’ newsroom operations, and figure out how we needed to change, what we needed to do differently, and where our resources should be, given those decisions. The central conclusion that this group came up with, and it’s one that Dean Baquet, the executive editor, very much shares, is that the Times has changed an enormous amount, but it hasn’t changed enough. The Times is really leading in terms of journalism, whether it’s our investigative scoops that have gotten so much attention over the last year or whether it’s the form of journalism itself. The Times has really the best set of graphical journalists, I think, anywhere in the world. We’ve got video, we’ve got really incredible photography. We have this hugely popular new podcast called The Daily.

But too much of what we do is still tied to the old rhythms of the newspaper business. Some of those rhythms remain as relevant to our current world as they’ve ever been, but others aren’t as relevant as they once were. And we need to make the switch from the forms of journalism that are not as relevant to the new forms of journalism that have become more relevant.

I think the easiest way for people to understand this is to think about long blocks of text. Long blocks of text used to be the overwhelmingly dominant way that journalism was delivered to people. They are often the best way to convey information, but they’re not always the best way to convey information. We now have many more tools than we used to. What we really need to do on any story, is say to ourselves, “What is the best way to present this information?” Is it through a 6,000-word story? Is it through a Q & A? Is it through a 20-minute podcast episode? Our job is not to write stories. Our job is to illuminate what’s going on in the world through whatever form we think makes the most sense.

Q: How do you make it work economically?

For decades, journalism has been predominantly funded by advertising. That is going away. Print advertising is shrinking radically. Digital advertising is not only smaller, but a huge portion of digital advertising dollars are going to only two companies: Google and Facebook. This creates an enormous challenge for most journalistic outfits. The New York Times is in an extremely privileged position because we have several million people in this country and around the world who are willing to pay for digital-only access. We’re up to 2.5 million people plus the hundreds of thousands who still get our print paper and pay good money for it as well, but many, many journalistic organizations are not in that position.

For every dollar of advertising that we’re losing, we’re more than making up for it so far in our new subscriptions. That’s not the norm. I do worry a lot about what will happen to a journalistic market where more places have to have their readers directly funding what they are doing.

Q: You’ve said the paper’s future is more digital than print. How do you balance the legacy as a physical product, with all its history, with the need to become a digital enterprise? How hard is it to change something that’s so iconic?

It is hard for organizations like the Times to both maintain their print product and to innovate digitally. At what point and to what extent do you move away from what you’ve been doing for a long time?

The Times has made a decision that print is still vital to what we do. We still have a large print subscription base. And we think it’s a great product. I still get the print newspaper. Not just the Times; I also get the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. I like that form of reading. I like the curated experience. I like the serendipity where you start one story and then you see another story next to it.

The Times has actually increased the number of people internally who are purely dedicated to the print newspaper. You might say, “Well, wait a second, why would you do that at a time of rapid digital change?” You want to make sure that the print newspaper remains excellent and you want to free up a lot of other people not to worry about print. If you are a reporter, you don’t need to worry about print. If you are an editor of stories, you mostly don’t need to worry about print. At the end of the day, they’re going to figure out a way to package the very best stuff that we’ve done that day and put it into print. If we’ve done nine stories today on the tax bill, not all nine are going to go into print. It’s going to be a curated experience. The New York Times has people who are really dedicated to making the print product excellent, but most people understand that really their focus should be on digital.

There’s actually a fair amount of innovation going on in print right now. We’re putting out sections that we’ve never put out before. We’ve published two print sections for kids. We’ve published long-form journalism in its own section. The magazine has done exciting things. One of the things that we’ve tried to do is give people a real sense that there is intellectual and commercial energy around print, the same way there is around digital. Even as we’re likely to become ever more digital.

Q: The rest of the newspaper industry has been in a free fall for about the last 15 years if not longer. What do you think we lose when we lose these smaller outlets, and how does that affect the Times?

I would put the turmoil in journalism into two broad categories, one of which I consider positive, and one of which I consider really negative. The positive one is the classic story of creative destruction: New players come into an industry, into a market, and they figure out ways to do things differently and often, if we’re being honest, figure out ways to do things better. And they push out old players. There is some of this going on in journalism today and we should not lament that, right? If old publications go away and new publications come in, and they are doing a better job, that is fine. It is not just fine, it’s good.

The second force is the shrinking of local journalism. This matters because journalism has an important role to play in a democracy. That’s what makes it different from any other business. And if you don’t have strong local newspapers, then you don’t have city councils and school boards and mayors being covered. And if they’re not being covered by anyone, they’re not being held accountable. Citizens don’t know what’s going on in their community. There’s actually been some research on this that suggests that corruption rises when local news players exit the scene.

It’s vital that we have local journalism, whether it’s radio, whether it’s websites like the New Haven Independent, or whether it is daily newspapers, the more classic model. It can be any of those or it could be something else. But we need institutions that are telling us what’s going on in our own communities in a way that the New York Times and the Atlantic are never going to do because we are not local news organizations.

Q: Does Facebook have an impact on what you do?

Facebook has a big influence on the New York Times and all journalism in a few different ways. It’s become a huge delivery channel, so we have to think about the best way to package our work for Facebook. What are those 20 words that people are going to see on Facebook? What is that one picture people are going to see on Facebook? You want to make sure that it is accurate, you want to make sure that it is alluring enough that people might consider clicking on it, and you want to make sure it’s consistent with the brand. I can very easily think of photos that would be arresting and would make people click on an article that are deeply inconsistent with what the New York Times is trying to do. We don’t want to put that on Facebook.

The bigger ways Facebook is influencing us are, one, it’s this massive community where there are these really interesting discussions about our journalism. Discussions that didn’t ever actually happen before because people were reading the New York Times alone at their breakfast table. Now they’re able to read it almost with their friends and that’s a good development.

And then there’s the advertising impact, which is the fact is Facebook is getting a lot of ad revenue that previously would have gone to companies that were directly providing journalism. What does the world look like if Facebook is getting the bulk of advertising dollars? How does it make sure, as a good corporate citizen, that it isn’t essentially putting news organizations out of business? I think Facebook is starting to grapple with that, but it’s going to be tricky to figure out.

Q: How do you report the news when there’s no longer a consensus on the underlying facts?

This question of objectivity versus subjectivity in journalism is really tricky. I’m an opinion journalist, so it’s not one that I have to wrestle with anymore because I write my opinion and that’s my job. But for almost my entire career, I was on the news side of things and so I’ve spent a long time thinking about this issue that we live in a country where people don’t even agree on what the facts are.

And that isn’t simply a function of Donald Trump or even our newly partisan times. What is a fact and what is an opinion? There’s a real gray area about that stuff. I’ll give you an example. I believe the evidence shows that the education reform movement, writ large, has had huge successes. It’s also had failures, but I would say on net, the education reform movement has had a lot of important successes. There are many people on the political left, who I agree with about global warming, who I agree with about tax policy, who I agree with on many things, who think what I just said is wrong. They think it is false. They don’t think the evidence supports the idea that the education reform movement has been more successful than not. So what do we do about that? There’s no easy answer to that question.

And I think we need to separate out the places where there are easy answers. The planet is getting warmer and we should say so. Capitalism has a much better record of working than any other economic system in the history of human beings, and we should say so. There’s a long list of stuff like that. Then there’s a long list of stuff where we don’t really know. We don’t know what the economy is going to do next year and we shouldn’t pretend that we do know.

I do think it’s important for journalists to push away from stenography. We don’t just want to say, one side says the sun sets in the west and the other side says it sets in the south. That’s not useful. But it is wrong to suggest that once you’ve decided you’re moving away from stenography, that the choices are easy. They’re not easy. On a lot of issues, they’re really hard. And figuring out how to describe evidence that can be mixed and uncertain is just difficult.

Q: You previously wrote an economics column. What economic factors do you think are most misunderstood by the general public?

I’ll offer two misunderstood economic ideas. And I’ll do one from the right and one from the left.

I do think a lot of people, maybe not in business schools but elsewhere, underestimate the power and efficiency of markets. They will look at something like airline deregulation, to take an old example, and they’ll say, “Boy, that was a failure because I don’t really have a pleasant experience while flying.” Well actually, airline deregulation wasn’t a failure. It was a pretty big success. The cost of flying fell, the safety of flying rose. Yes, it’s true that the airlines feel a little bit more like a Greyhound bus these days. On the other hand, they’re basically a form of middle-class travel. And I think what people often miss is, the market can be a very powerful way, not perfect, but a very powerful way for allocating resources. And just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean that we actually want to move away from a market-based system.

The other misconception I’ll give is, actually kind of a basic, factual one, I don’t think most Americans have any idea of just how unequal a country they live in. When you look at survey data, and people are asked, “What did the top 5% earn? What does the top 1% earn? What does the top .1% earn?,” they vastly underestimate the level of inequality that we have in this country. People don’t know just how much money the wealthy in this country are making today. And as a result, I think that affects our politics because it makes people a little bit less worked up, I would say, than they should be about the amount of inequality.

Q: As a columnist, what impact do you think you’re having on the debate? Do you think you can change minds on issues?

I always encourage severe humility among journalists about the impact that we’re able to have. It’s a big world out there. It’s not the case that if only you inform people of something, that a) you’re going to persuade them, and b) it’s going to change things. And so I think it’s often very difficult to draw a straight line from an article, or even a few articles, to a change. And I think that generally journalists should assume that they’re not going to write an article and it’s going to have an impact.

I think that it is clear, writ large, though, that journalism remains as impactful as it’s ever been. And I think the best, clearest example of this—it is an extreme example, but the best, clearest example of this—is the Harvey Weinstein story. The New York Times broke news of Harvey Weinstein’s horrific sexual harassment and worse. The New Yorker followed up several days later with a story that included not only harassment but also allegations of assault, and those stories, in a very direct way, have led to this entire cultural period in which we are taking sexual harassment more seriously than we ever have before.

I think we should have some confidence, particularly in this moment when I know a lot of people feel worried about the state of our country—when I feel worried about the state of our country— that in the long term, informing people about what’s going on in the world really can have an impact and can change what happens in our society.

Columnist, The New York Times