The News About the News Business Is Getting Grimmer

Even by the standards of a news business whose fortunes have plummeted in the digital age, the last few weeks have been especially grim for American journalism.

Prominent newspapers like The Washington Post are shedding reporters and editors, and on Tuesday, The Los Angeles Times laid off more than 20 percent of its newsroom. Cable news ratings have fallen amid an uncompetitive presidential primary contest. Esteemed titles like Sports Illustrated, already a shadow of their former selves, have been gutted overnight.

As Americans prepare for an election year that will feature disinformation wars, A.I.-generated agitprop and a debate over the future of democracy, the mainstream news industry — once the de facto watchdog and facilitator of public discourse — is struggling to stay afloat.

The pain is particularly pronounced at the community level. An average of five local newspapers are closing every two weeks, according Northwestern University’s Medill School, with more half of all American counties now so-called news deserts with limited access to news about their hometowns. Of 1,100 public radio stations and affiliates, only about one in five is producing local journalism.

“At a time when America arguably needs more solid news coverage than ever, it is very disturbing to see economic forces arrange so powerfully against traditional news sources,” said Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president who works with a group of M.I.T. researchers studying the future of news and information.

“It’s not just disturbing,” he added. “It’s dangerous.”

The decline has gone on for years, but a painful confluence of challenges has resulted in the current carnage.

Americans are suffering from news fatigue, inundated with major stories like the coming election and wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. Those who do follow the news have increasingly turned to social media and anti-establishment sites that exist outside legacy organizations.

Companies are spending more of their ad budgets to reach users on big tech platforms like Instagram and Google — which in turn have become less reliable in referring readers to traditional news sources. Twitter, now X, shed users and relevance after its chaotic takeover by Elon Musk, while Google and Meta laid off key news employees and the head of Instagram’s Threads app said it would not focus on news.

Troubles at the corporate level have also taken a toll.

The rise of streaming and a drop-off in moviegoing have led to belt-tightening at the parent companies of many news outlets. Disney, which owns ABC News, shed thousands of jobs last year. With NBCUniversal losing viewers from its once-formidable cable-TV division, NBC News laid off several dozen employees this month. CNN, owned by debt-laden Warner Bros. Discovery, went through a round of layoffs. Paramount, which owns CBS News, is also planning deep cuts, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.

The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Boston Globe have found success by attracting digital subscribers, and there are some green shoots among niche, subscription-based start-ups that largely focus on a single industry, like The Information for tech and The Ankler for Hollywood.

Still, the onslaught of painful headlines is an ominous sign for the broader news industry’s efforts to forge sustainable business models.

The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times appeared poised for comebacks after each newspaper was bought by a tech-savvy billionaire, the sort of financial benefactor the industry hoped could offer a lifeline as print revenue dwindled. Hiring sprees and Pulitzer Prizes followed at both papers.

But both lost tens of millions of dollars last year. This month, Kevin Merida, The Los Angeles Times’s widely respected editor, resigned after clashing with the paper’s owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. Then came the extensive layoffs.

“If you care about journalism — local news, national news, international news — every warning light should be blinking red,” Mary Louise Kelly, a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” wrote on X after word of those layoffs spread.

The Post is cutting costs under its billionaire owner, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The paper surged in popularity during the Trump administration but failed to build on its subscriber growth. Shortly before the new year, The Post announced that 240 journalists had accepted buyouts.

The Baltimore Sun, Maryland’s largest newspaper, also faces an uncertain future. It was sold this month to David D. Smith, a businessman who runs the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. Many reporters at The Sun are concerned that Mr. Smith will impose his political interests on a newspaper that he recently admitted he had barely read in the past 40 years.

The magazine world has not been immune. Last week, Sports Illustrated, once a titan of sports journalism, whose cover was a coveted prize for the world’s greatest athletes, said it was laying off much of its entire staff, and its future is in doubt as its owners consider licensing the property to new investors. Days earlier, Condé Nast folded Pitchfork, once a kingmaker among music’s smart set, into GQ magazine and laid off employees, including the editor in chief.

On Tuesday, unionized workers at Condé Nast organized a walkout and protest at its World Trade Center headquarters. Time magazine, owned by billionaire Marc Benioff, the Salesforce founder, also began laying off employees this week.

The recent bad news is, in some ways, a continuation from last year. In 2023, Business Insider, The Los Angeles Times and NPR cut at least 10 percent of their staffs; the news division of BuzzFeed was shut down; News Corp cut 1,250 people; National Geographic laid off its remaining staff writers; Vox Media went through two rounds of layoffs; Vice Media filed for bankruptcy; Popular Science shut its online magazine; and ESPN, Condé Nast and Yahoo News all cut jobs.

“A new reality has sunk in among legacy media, both print stalwarts owned by billionaires and some of the high-profile national digital players who won such notice a decade ago,” said Ken Doctor, a media entrepreneur and analyst.

Now, the news industry is looking ahead to fresh hurdles posed by the technology of artificial intelligence. Some outlets have expressed concern that A.I. algorithms, which generate impromptu answers to readers’ questions, could replace online news sites as go-to sources for current events.

The New York Times has sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement, arguing that millions of articles published by The Times were used to train automated chatbots that now compete as providers of information. Some publishers, like Axel Springer, cut deals with OpenAI for annual payments in exchange for the use of their digital archives.

If there’s one bright spot, it might be local television news.

Though local TV news stations are enduring their own problems — heavier workloads for reporters, even as salaries have stagnated — many remain in better shape than local newspapers, said Mr. Heyward, the former CBS News president, who now works as a consultant to several local news outlets.

“Local TV news has a lot going for it,” he said. “Virtually every market of any size has three to four competing newsrooms, which is a stark contrast to the local newspaper, where a market is lucky to have one. And if they do, it’s generally a shadow of its former self.”

A Gallup and Knight Foundation survey in 2023 found that Americans placed far more trust in local news sources than national media organizations. And just 19 percent of Americans described their trust in journalists as “high” or “very high” in a Gallup survey released this week, a nine-point decrease from four years ago.

“They can’t be demonized as fake news,” Mr. Heyward said of local outlets. “If there’s a traffic light broken at Elm and Maple, people know it, and there are no alternative facts. Americans are having trouble finding common ground, but in a local market, they have it.”