Nov 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

Journalists face volatile media landscape

Illustration of a person typing on a laptop with medical gloves on

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic has been a nightmare for thousands of journalists out of work —and for additional thousands trying to navigate jobs amid fear and uncertainty.

Why it matters: Recent departures, deals, layoffs and restructurings amid the pandemic have journalists questioning whether there's stability anywhere within the industry.

Driving the news: Ezra Klein's departure from Vox announced Friday sent shockwaves across Twitter.

  • Klein, who had co-founded the publication seven years ago, announced he was leaving to become a columnist and podcaster at The New York Times.
  • His colleague, Lauren Williams — Vox's editor-in-chief and senior vice president — is also leaving to start her own non-profit media firm focused on Black communities.

Klein becomes the Times' latest high-profile hire in recent months. The Grey Lady hired Kara Swisher away from Vox last year. It has since poached several big names, including former BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and former Bloomberg columnist Shira Ovide.

  • The Times' investment in mega-stars is part of a broader consolidation trend in the media industry, in which giants expand while smaller outlets continue to get bought up or fade away.
  • On Thursday, BuzzFeed struck a deal to acquire the progressive news website HuffPost from Verizon Media. Verizon Media reportedly paid Buzzfeed to be able to offload the title.

Some high-profile journalists have been striking out on their own amid the pandemic, seeking in several high-profile cases to get back to their blogging roots. Companies like Vox and HuffPost that emerged from the weblog movement eventually matured into corporate newsrooms.

  • Last week, Klein's former colleague and co-founder Matthew Yglesias said he was leaving the company to start his own newsletter.
  • Glenn Greenwald last month quit The Intercept, an outlet he cofounded, after 7 years, citing efforts by his editors to "censor" articles critical of President-elect Biden.

The big picture: While the exits at Vox aren't necessarily related, they do represent a greater trend: Brands that were once considered disruptive digital upstarts now must navigate a competitive media market without the startup hype — and, often, without their founders.

  • In the past eight months, companies that were once considered the future of journalism, like Vice, Buzzfeed, Quartz and Vox Media, have let hundreds of people go.
  • They themselves are now being challenged by a new crop of digital media upstarts with a more specialized focus on newer kinds of products, like newsletters, streaming and podcasts.
  • They also face competition from some well-positioned legacy outlets, like The Times, that have both authority and deep pockets.

Yes, but: Those legacy companies, including The Times, as well as The Atlantic and ESPN, have also faced layoffs and headwinds related to the pandemic.

Local news companies, already under enormous financial pressure, have been hit particularly hard by the advertising dropoff related to the pandemic.

By the numbers: In total, it's been estimated that more than 11,000 journalism jobs were lost in the first half of the year. Thousands more layoffs are expected by year's end.

The bottom line: The uncertainty has made it tough for journalists to find any sure bets for survival.

  • While there's more opportunity to do journalism across a greater array of media — podcasting, streaming, newsletters, and more — there's little certainty around what type of employment will still exist in five years and what type of company will have the means to create new jobs and products.
  • While some high-profile stars will continue to build their franchises, most of the tens of thousands of journalists across the country will continue to face hardships.
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