Revenue is down, and so are audiences. The PEJ study reports audience growth only in digital and cable news, with declines in local TV and network news. Print newspaper circulation fell 10.6 percent in 2009, and since 2000, daily circulation has fallen 25.6 percent.
This decline is also reflected in employment. According to a report by UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., there was a 22 percent increase in the journalism jobs lost from September 2008 through August 2009, compared with a general job loss rate of 8 percent. The news industry shed 35,885 jobs in a one-year period straddling 2008 and 2009.
Despite experiments with new ways to organize and support journalists -- including grant-funded news operations such as Pro Publica, university/newsroom partnerships, citizen journalism collaborations with professional newsrooms, and various web projects -- it is clear that, at least in the short term, there simply will be less journalism created by professional journalists.
It also seems clear that of the journalism remaining, a growing percentage is of less value to the project of enhancing democracy. I don't want to pretend there was a golden age when professional journalism provided the critical and independent inquiry that citizens need to function as citizens. For reasons articulated by critics such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, contemporary professional journalism is hamstrung by institutional and ideological constraints that have been built into professional practices. As a result, corporate news owners rarely have to discipline mainstream journalists, who are socialized to accept the ideological prison in which they work and police other inmates.
But even with that rather large caveat, the slide of much of contemporary journalism into banality is frightening. Of public affairs journalism, we might paraphrase an old joke about hard-to-please restaurant patrons: "The food is awful here," one says, and the friend replies, "Yes, and they've reduced the portions.
The markers of this slide in quality are clear enough: An obsession with entertainment and sports, especially large-scale spectacles; routine exploitation of sexuality and violence in ways corrosive to human dignity; an endless fascination with celebrity, with the standards of what constitutes celebrity continually dropping; and a growing imposition of those spectacle and celebrity values on public affairs. This is not a screed against entertainment, pleasure, fun, or the people's desire to gain pleasure from fun entertainment. It is not an attempt to glorify the rational and devalue the emotional. It is not a self-indulgent lament that the kind of journalism I prefer is losing out. It's an accurate description of our increasing numbed-out and intellectually vapid culture.
How much of this collapse of journalism is driven by the explosion of news outlets in a 24-hour news cycle, as an ever-larger media beast demands to be fed? How much is a product of bottom-line-focused news managers' longstanding obsession with producing the extraordinary profits demanded by top-floor-dwelling executives? How much is panic caused by these dramatic drops in audience and revenue by so-called legacy media, leading to desperation in programming?
Whatever the relative weight of these causes, the effect is clear: In the mainstream outlets through which most people in the United States get their news, there is less journalism relevant to citizens' role in a democracy and more journalism-like material that dulls our collective capacity for independent critical thinking. If journalists had only to struggle to return to some previous state in which they did a better job, that would be hard enough. But journalists can't be satisfied with striving toward standards from the past. A new journalism is needed.
The journalism of collapse
The immediate crises that journalism and journalists face -- some rooted in the pathology of professionalism and its illusory claims to neutrality, and some rooted in the predatory nature of capitalism and its illusory commitment to democracy -- are serious, but in some sense trivial compared to the long-term crises in a profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable world. We have to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also must begin to fashion a journalism of collapse.
To reiterate my basic premise: Whatever the specific story being told in modern journalism, those stories typically are set in that larger narrative of perpetual progress and endless expansion. What kind of story is needed for a world that desperately needs to rethink its idea of progress in a world that is no longer expanding?
Here's the story: On March 17, 2051, the world will pump its last easily accessible barrel of usable oil. By that time, cancer directly attributable to human-created toxicity will kill 125 million people per year, while major disruptions in the hydrological cycle will so dramatically reduce the amount of fresh water that 18.9 percent of the human population will die each year as a direct result. On June 14, 2047, exactly half of the area of the world's oceans will be dead zones, incapable of supporting significant marine life. Three and a half years later, topsoil losses will have reached the point where even with petrochemical based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, yields will drop by 50 percent on the most fertile soil and fall to zero on soil that has effectively gone sterile due to contamination and compaction. But there won't be any petrochemicals anyway, because there won't be any oil. And there won't be enough water. And so there won't be enough food. And getting reliable broadband internet service will be difficult.
OK, that was all meant to be funny. That, of course, is not the story. The story we need to tell won't be focused on predictions about specific aspects of collapse. I have no doubt that if the human community continues on its present trajectory, such statistics will be all too real. I have no doubt that if the human community does not change that trajectory in substantial ways fairly soon, the future will be grim. But rather than scurrying to make specific predictions, journalism should struggle to help people understand the processes that make that preceding paragraph plausible, and hence not funny at all. There's little humor in the recognition that continued commitment to an ideology of perpetual progress and endless expansion -- operationally defined as ever greater human consumption of the ecological capital of the planet -- is a dead end. More and bigger not only is not better, it is not possible.
The response I often get to this view is the assertion that we need not worry about the physical limits of the planet because human ingenuity will invent increasingly clever ways of exploiting those resources. This technological fundamentalism -- the belief that the use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology -- is more prevalent, and more dangerous, than religious fundamentalism. History teaches that we should be more cautious and pay attention to the unintended effects of such technology with an eye on the long term.
The fundamentalists believe the future is always bright, apparently because they wish it to be so. But the desire to live in an endless expanding world of bounty -- a desire found both in those who currently have access to that bounty and those who don't but crave it -- is not a guarantee of it. We certainly know this at the individual level, that "you can't always get what you want," as the song goes, and what holds for us as individuals is also true for us as a species.