News unions have expanded their footprints in the last couple of years, organizing longtime holdouts like the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and a dozen Gannett newsrooms, as well as most top news websites and magazines (Slate, Vice, HuffPost, POLITICO, The Atlantic, Esquire, The New Yorker, New York, Washingtonian, et al.). But the successes can’t mask the newspaper industry’s death spiral. Post workers may well win a new contract, secure desired workplace enhancements and collect raises if they keep at it. But the victory may prove Pyrrhic as the newspaper industry’s dim and dark present unfolds into its future.
According to a Thursday Post piece about the Post strike, labor and management aren’t even talking the same language. Workers have not had a contract for 18 months. The Guild wants a minimum salary of $100,100 for reporters, and management is offering only $73,000. The parties are also separated by annual cost-of-living demands.
Seeing as it’s only money they’re talking about, Bezos could buy every newsroom employee a $4 million home in the Hollywood Hills or thereabouts, give each $1 million in walking around money and make a bonfire on Malibu beach of $1 billion just to celebrate his generosity, and he’d still have $165 billion in his pocket. But that’s not how Bezos thinks. He counts every penny and fights unions hard wherever they appear in his kingdom. Since buying the money-losing Post a decade ago for a mere $250 million, he’s been adamant about not running the paper as a philanthropy. Instead, he invested untold millions to reverse the newsroom headcount decline, expanding it by more than a third and adding new foreign bureaus, too. And miracle of miracles, he succeeded in making the paper profitable as recently as 2019.
Bezos said at the outset that he also planned to make the Post a “national and even global publication.” While his millions improved what he inherited, he still hasn’t made it a national or global read on par with the Times. It may be that there is room in the marketplace for only one national and global publication, and the New York Times has already claimed it.
Meanwhile, for all of Bezos’ ambitions to build a profitable paper, the Post is now projected to lose $100 million this year. Such loses don’t encourage bosses like Bezos to give raises or prevent them from trimming staff. You can blame red ink on the stewardship of outgoing publisher Fred Ryan, or you can attribute it to the end of the “Trump Bump.” (After Donald Trump left the White House the paper’s digital subscriptions declined to about 2.5 million from 3 million.) Or you could lay it on Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, who arrived in spring 2021 and isn’t the sort of news impresario predecessor Marty Baron was. Or you could opt for the unified field theory and blame it all on the irreversible decline of the newspaper industry.
As press baron Rupert Murdoch once said, newspapers are “rivers of gold.” But as he also later acknowledged, “Sometimes rivers dry up.” After a decade of supporting and expanding the paper, Bezos must fear that his entire newspaper investment will be swept out to sea. That’s not fearmongering. Newspaper trend lines are cratering and may prove to be too steep for Bezos’ tastes. According to the Pew Research Center, national weekday circulation peaked in 1972 at 63 million and has recently fallen to below 21 million. Newspaper advertising revenue peaked in 2006 at $49 billion and has now dropped below $10 billion, with only about 50 percent of it coming from the digital side. Meanwhile, Google alone pulls in about $76 billion in U.S. ad revenue a year.
Not only are the industry’s revenues and circulation gone to swirl in the toilet, but there are also fewer newspaper newsroom workers to organize. According to Pew Research, total newspaper newsroom jobs fell 57 percent between 2008 and 2020, and those losses are predicted to continue in the coming years.
Organized labor may have conquered the newspaper newsroom, but they’ve inherited an empire in near ruins.
Disclosure: My spouse is a Post Guild member. The Washington Post has always dragged its feet on negotiations. Just 37 years ago, back when the Graham family owned the paper, the newsroom rallied outside the paper’s offices at lunchtime to protest the lack of a contract. Send your union demands to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter and Bluesky feeds are not billionaires. My RSS feed would never belong to a union that would have him as a member.