Q&A: Killing Journalism author Joe Strupp on the news industry's perilous decline and what comes next

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Joe Strupp was a cub reporter for Elizabeth, NJ’s The Daily Journal when he first encountered the media’s unique obsession with Donald Trump. While working the local beat one afternoon in June 1990, Strupp came across an unassuming coffee shop whose owner had responded to a recent spate of bad news for the real estate developer by putting out a collection jar labeled “Donald Trump Fund.” His subsequent page-one story, complete with the owner’s cheeky comment that “Donald is into free enterprise and he’s in trouble, so we feel bad for him,” set off a firestorm of coverage as other journalists descended on the shop, culminating with a report on NBC’s Nightly News.  

“It was clear then the drawing power Trump had, even in apparent defeat,” Strupp writes in Killing Journalism, a new book detailing his experiences over an award-winning three-decade news career that included a stint as my colleague at Media Matters. In the years that followed, he wrote, “Trump became an expert at using the media that also used him for ratings, readership and headlines, to promote himself,” culminating in his rise to the presidency.

Strupp’s book, drawing from interviews with a host of prominent media critics and other journalists, presents a clear-eyed view of an industry that far too often has allowed the reality TV star-turned-president to serve as its assignment editor, allowing other crucial stories to fall out of the public eye.

But Strupp is quick to point out that the current crisis in American journalism long predates Trump’s presidency. He details a campaign against the press that moves along two tracks: one political, in which conservatives seek to deliberately undermine journalists with largely fabricated claims of bias, and one financial, in which a combination of a faltering business model and greedy ownership has led to catastrophic job losses that are hobbling news coverage.

Over email, Strupp and I discussed the declining news business and why he’s still hopeful for the future. Our conversation has been edited for clarity. You can read Strupp’s past work for Media Matters here and listen to his regular podcast on the press here.

You’ve been a journalist for three decades. How has the business of the news media shifted in that time?

As the book notes, it is consolidation of both jobs and ownership. There are simply fewer people digging up news and editing and confirming it. And when more companies merge and buy each other out, a smaller group holds the control over what is covered and how it is presented.

Six major companies own 90 percent of today’s news media compared to 50 companies owning the same percentage 35 years ago. That is never a good thing because it results in fewer independent journalists and less variety of places reporting news.

The subjects being covered have also narrowed. A lot less coverage of state and local news, as well as science, the environment, health, and education.

There is more demand for instant news -- be it 24-hour channels, instant Tweets and Facebook posts, or just constant website updating. The result: misinformation, rumors, and outright incorrect reporting.  

People may look around and say, “Well, I get my news online; I read a lot of stories from both traditional outlets like newspapers and new digital media companies.” What’s been lost as the number of journalists has declined over the years?

Good point. Much of it is lost competition. Beats that often had three, four, or five reporters covering them are down to one or two, and in some cases none. Most people do not read newspapers, choosing their news from cable and broadcast television -- which have reduced reporting in favor of talking head shows and on-air arguing and debates -- and social media.

Studies find many people get news from Facebook posts of others, often linked to questionable sources, or Twitter, which also depends on who is being followed. If a news consumer is following a disreputable news source, or some friend offering a rumor, the accuracy is diminished.

The web has helped newspapers in some ways, however. The New York Times or The Washington Post and other traditional and reputable news sources can now compete for breaking news because of the internet, which is a good thing. But they are more rushed as well and more prone to mistakes simply because of the speed demand.

Do you think these processes were inevitable, or was there a point where news outlets could have arrested the decline?

The technological changes were inevitable, including the internet. With all of the personal communication demands and growing science surrounding quicker exchanges of information, you were going to have some form of internet, and the future promises it will only get faster and easier to obtain.

That’s not a bad thing entirely. Most of the research I did for this book I did on my home computer and phone using the web for background material, fact-checking, and finding other source outlets. The same for email and texting.

One approach could have been news outlets online charging for content sooner or otherwise finding a business model that worked. But as we know, newspapers and many other traditional news sources followed the belief that it had to be free or it would not get an audience. That’s changing as most news websites charge something. But the ad revenue is still much less than other previous forms.  

You write that false attacks on the press for liberal bias have “masked the true nature of news media’s key problems -- fewer journalists and greedier owners.” How has the ownership model changed over the years, and what sort of impact has that had?

As noted earlier, consolidation has put more news sources in fewer hands. And those hands are larger corporations demanding bigger profit margins.

Many of them leveraged to the point where they need 20 percent or 30 percent profit margins to pay those debts. That is an incentive to cut costs and focus on the revenue rather than the product. In the past, most newspapers were family-owned and demanded profits of 8 percent to 10 percent.

Even the early days of CBS or NBC and CNN saw minimal profit margins. CNN did not post a profit for its first five years. In 2017, the combined profit for Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC was $2.7 billion, a 13 percent increase over the previous year.

When you are desperate for an audience and profits, you will resort to anything that gets eyeballs. That is how entertainment TV has devolved to things like The Bachelor or Real Housewives. And news is not much better, with cable channels pushing the talking head panel arguments over real reporting and most broadcast news magazines like Dateline and 20/20 looking at scandal or crime with little substance.

In just the past few weeks, ABC News has resurrected Monica Lewinsky, John Wayne Bobbit, JFK Jr.’s death, and Robert Blake -- old scandals stories with no real new information. But they get an audience.

Do you see the same thing playing out with consolidation of television stations?

Yes, and as we have seen with Sinclair Broadcasting, the right-wing TV chain that owns more stations than any other, it uses its outlets to push a slanted pro-Trump agenda and actually seeks to attack more balanced news outlets.  

With fewer owners controlling these popular local news outlets, less variety is provided not only locally, but on national stories. I cite data from the Pew Research Center that indicates most people still get their news from local TV, but that is diminishing and forcing those stations to cut back on true reporting in favor of easy fluff stories and clickbait tabloid fodder.

But the impact on national and regional stories is just as bad because the local TV outlets share reporting duties more than ever. Washington bureaus have been closing and merging for years, among them Tribune, Cox News Service, McClatchy, Gannett, and Advance Media. And at least 21 states no longer have a news outlet with a dedicated D.C. reporter, the most ever.

When more news outlets are using reporting from the same reporter, perspective and variety are lost.

Do you think there’s a way back to a media built around family-owned publications?

I am not without hope, but I remain skeptical only because the control has gone to so many major corporations making huge profits by reducing the product and expanding the reach via social media.

It is up to the public to demand better reporting and not give attention to the Infowars or World Net Dailys that spew lies and inaccuracy. But people have their own issues these days with Washington gridlock, education, health care, crime, and whatever the immediate demand is. Trump has done such a great job turning people against the honest journalism [that] many just assume it is all bad and have given up in many cases.

There are some big companies with family ties trying to do the right thing. Look at Warren Buffet and the Sulzbergers, as well as Jeff Bezos, who is investing a lot in The Washington Post with little demand for cost cutting. But news is not unlike a lot of industries that have lost family control to large conglomerates, from farming to manufacturing and even retail shops.

What do you think of reports that the hedge fund-backed Digital First Media is trying to buy Gannett? What kind of impact would that have?

The simple numbers are disturbing because you would have one company owning more than 300 news outlets. In my home state of New Jersey, the impact would be serious as Gannett owns five major daily papers, each of which would likely be cut back further, and Digital Media controls two.

Digital First Media has a poor track record in terms of quality.

(Full disclosure: I worked for two Digital First newspapers back when they were under Media News Group, which merged with Journal Register in 2013 to form Digital First.)

And while I enjoyed them very much and had great editors, neither exists today and the company is known for cutting back to boost revenues. It is currently owned by a hedge fund that was called the “destroyer of newspapers.” This has more cutting and lost reporting written all over it.  

How might nonprofit journalism outlets provide a way forward for the news media?

That is the big bright spot in my book and in the news business, with nearly 200 nonprofit news outlets from Boston to New Orleans to San Diego doing great investigative work via donations and fundraising that allows them to dig into issue without worrying about circulation or ratings. And mainstream outlets are welcoming them with joint ventures between profitless groups like ProPublica and Center for Investigative Reporting with The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press.

And the work is in-depth, earning these outlets 15 Pulitzer Prize wins and finalist spots since 2008.

If it was up to me, all news would be nonprofit, taking away the worst part of the profession, the profit demand, in favor of the best part, real news. But that is never going to happen.

What could happen is that news consumers increase their funding for these sites and give them the support they need, along with foundations and non-news corporations in a way similar to public broadcasting.