Journalists are losing jobs in the U.S. and facing jail or even death elsewhere. Is a free press a thing of the past and news reporting a dying profession?
By Ben Barber
In the last decade, one in four journalism jobs in the United States has disappeared. Hundreds of U.S. newspapers have closed.
Meanwhile, around the world from Turkey to Poland, to Thailand, to Russia, to China, to Pakistan, billions of people can’t buy an independent newspaper or see television news not controlled by their government.
U.S. journalists are accused almost daily by President Donald Trump of writing or broadcasting “fake news,” which is a catchword for news critical of Trump.
Trump calls journalists treasonous “enemies of the American people” for contradicting some of the estimated 10,000 lies, counted by the Washington Post newspaper, that he has uttered since taking office in 2017.
In 2018, 54 journalists were killed.
Newsroom employment in the United States declined 23% between 2008 and 2017, a loss of 27,000 jobs, according to the Pew Research Center. The pace of job cuts picked up last year, when news organizations announced plans to slash another 11,878 positions, according to executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Meanwhile, outside the United States journalists are being slain or jailed by the hundreds.
In 2018, 54 journalists were killed around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This is the third year in a row that at least 250 journalists have been arrested,” CPJ spokeswoman Bebe Santa-Wood said in a phone interview. “Turkey, China and Egypt are top jailers of journalists.”
Trump meets amicably with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and Russia and Turkey but fails to ask them to release jailed journalists.
And while previous U.S. presidents backed world press freedom, Trump’s silence on that issue during formal visits could arguably encourage autocratic rulers to silence the press.
A global map ranking countries on their adherence to a free press is available at the web site of Freedom House. It shows that a free press is increasingly rare, found only in northwestern Europe, Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In some former Soviet Bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, the pendulum is shifting back to press controls.
So journalism faces a double-barreled assault: in the United Stated and some other countries, economic and social forces are throttling the free press. Big corporations or billionaires, often aligned with hard-line central governments, are buying the broadcast and print media.
Time Magazine recently picked four journalists as the collective “Person of the Year” for being arrested or murdered:
- slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
- five killed at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland
- Jailed Philippine journalist Maria Ressa
- two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar for nearly a year, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo
In Mexico, drug cartels are killing investigative reporters, said Jim Kuhnhenn, Press Freedom Fellow at the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute in Washington.
The current wave of economic, legal and violent criminal attacks on journalists has contributed to the decision to build a Fallen Journalists Memorial on the Washington Mall in the center of the U.S. capital.
The Internet would democratize the news media.
For the United States, the loss of journalism jobs is mainly due to the Internet. Young people prefer to read news online, leading to declines in audience share and loss of advertising.
“Things are changing so rapidly. It is a moving target,” said media business analyst Rick Edmonds, speaking from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida. “There will still be a journalism profession.”
In the 1990s, media analysts predicted the Internet would democratize the news media. Anyone could write a blog and post it on Facebook or other open sites. This opened the wider world to voices of African-Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups. Until then, top editors and writers were nearly all white males.
But the proliferation of unedited and opinionated blogs undercut jobs for trained journalists.
‘I would not advise kids to turn away from journalism.’
Many media owners used to be families with a love of journalism and a desire to play a useful role in society. But many have sold out to investors who demanded a return on their investment, even selling off real estate that had served the community for decades.
From the beginning of journalism in the 1600s, reporters have been hated and feared by government officials, business leaders and others accused of corruption.
Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson said in a 1787 letter from Paris: “[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
To try and save journalism, some are expanding the role of non-profit journalism, supported by foundations like ProPublica. These groups back reporting on the environment, criminal justice, civil rights, minority issues and similar issues.
Despite the challenges, perhaps the future of journalism has not yet been written.
“I would not advise kids to turn away from journalism,” said Edmonds.
Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.