Why the media implosion scares me

Reflecting on what we lose when we lose professional journalists – and where the news business is headed next.

AI generated image of laptop on fire against a dark teal background.

Happy Friday and welcome to Food Fix! Somehow it’s nearly April?! I am now 32 weeks pregnant and can feel myself starting to slow down a bit – this whole making a human thing is hard work!  

Food Fix in Florida: I’ll be in Gainesville, Fla., next week as the University of Florida’s spring science journalist in residence. In addition to meeting with faculty and students, I’m giving a talk about reporting on food policy as journalism is imploding (apropos of today’s topic!) and appearing on a panel for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Future of Food Forum.

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Alright, let’s get to it —



Why the media implosion should scare all of us

By now you’ve probably caught wind of the fact that the news industry is not doing well. 

In recent months, there have been significant layoffs at NBC News, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Business Insider, Time, Vox and many, many more. The Washington Post had a large round of buyouts. Some digital outlets, like Vice, BuzzFeed News and The Messenger, have fully imploded. Sports Illustrated and National Geographic are limping along without staff writers. Depending on who you ask, this all amounts to a major downturn at best and a “potential extinction-level event” at worst.

When I accidentally fell into journalism nearly 15 years ago, I didn’t give news business models much thought. But now, as an entrepreneur in this space – I launched Food Fix back in the summer of 2022 – I spend a lot of time thinking about all of this. How is journalism going to survive? What does it look like on the other side of this ongoing implosion?

Why is this happening? There are many factors at play here. One biggie is that the business model for a large-scale national digital publication has essentially crumbled. There was a time when media outlets got a healthy amount of traffic from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and they could monetize that traffic (usually with ads). That era is over. Social platforms have largely pivoted away from news. Many news outlets, in their quest to reach more and more eyeballs, outsourced their content distribution to tech giants that they can’t control, and they are now paying the price.

It’s all likely to get worse as Big Tech increasingly pivots toward AI tools, which are much more likely to answer questions (with bot-regurgitated information) instead of sending someone directly to news sources like NPR or the New York Times. Publishers are already reporting significant drops in traffic from Google – a harbinger of further declines to come.

Here’s an example: If you’re curious about the recent Baltimore bridge collapse, you can now ask an AI bot for a summary of what happened and why. This kind of tool skips over the need to visit the Baltimore Sun or the Baltimore Banner, two local news outlets providing on-the-ground reporting that’s both essential and requires significant resources to produce. It also eliminates the need to read CNN, Associated Press, the Washington Post, etc.

The attention economy: These big content distribution shifts come right as our attention is already splintering in a million directions, as everyone spends more time on social media and less time consuming traditional media. There’s more information and more content to consume than ever before, but less and less is coming from institutions with editorial standards, institutions that go to great lengths to make sure the information they’re sharing is accurate. It makes sorting fact from fiction extremely difficult.

There are, of course, some real upsides to this shakeup. Power and information-sharing are in theory much more decentralized and democratized. These are good things! 

I also don’t share a lot of the romanticism about journalism that many of my peers have. This business is deeply flawed in so many ways – in part because our newsrooms have never accurately reflected America. And I mean that in broad terms – far too few people of color, too few conservatives, too few people from low-income backgrounds, and too few people from rural places, just to name a few. This industry can be insular and overly-dramatic, and it consistently fails to check biases of all kinds. But even with these flaws, I fear we will be much worse off without a strong news media.

I’ve come to deeply appreciate how important the institution of journalism is, particularly in holding the government to account. My own reporting over the years has spurred inspector general investigations, congressional hearings, criminal investigations and a major agency reorganization – these are real impacts that can’t be achieved by TikTok video or Instagram reel. 

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Were 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.” (He also argued that everyone should have access to the papers and “be capable of reading them.”) 

The point here, of course, is that democracies don’t really work without accurate information about what’s going on. The problem is that the business model has to work for journalism to survive as an institution. 

A smaller future: One of the central themes of the current media freefall is that the era of scale is basically over. Any digital outlet that’s trying to appeal to the masses and maximize eyeballs, without a plan for converting those readers to paid subscribers, is likely doomed. The future of media is almost certainly smaller and much, much more focused. 

Food Fix is a good example of this. This little newsletter – not yet two years old! – is actually doing well because it is focused. I’m happy to report that our hybrid paid/free subscription model is working. The folks who pay to receive Food Fix twice a week support me continuing to report and write about these topics. (Right now, it’s just me, plus a rotation of great part-time editors, and I have help with tech. But I can see a path to building a team in the future.)

While I’m certainly glad that Food Fix is sustainable and no tech giant is upending my content distribution – good ol’ email! – I’m still deeply concerned about the future of the news biz.

A tiny beat shrinks: Food is unfortunately still seen as a niche, nonessential beat at most national news outlets – even though it’s a $2 trillion industry that affects our economy, health, environment and so on. A paper might have a culinary section, but this type of coverage generally doesn’t extend to meatier topics like federal policy, labor and environmental issues, nor mergers and acquisitions. This has been a challenge for a long time – long before the current media meltdown. We’ve never had a deep bench of reporters dedicated to this beat, but in recent months the ranks have thinned considerably:

Laura Reiley, who was covering the business of food at the Washington Post, took a buyout; Ellyn Ferguson, a veteran Capitol Hill reporter tracking ag, food and trade issues, recently retired; Kristina Peterson, who was covering food and ag policy at the Wall Street Journal, was laid off (she was later re-hired by WSJ for a different role); Megan Poinski was laid off from Food Dive (she’s now at Forbes); and Jacqui Fatka, who was covering food policy, recently left Agri-Pulse to take a job at CoBank. 

The numbers were already dwindling. The Counter, a publication dedicated to hard-hitting food reporting, folded and laid off its entire staff back in 2022. NPR also used to have a dedicated food and ag correspondent, Dan Charles, but did not fill the position after he retired in 2022.

When we have fewer reporters on this beat, it means public officials face fewer questions about a whole range of programs and policies that affect millions of people. There’s less accountability at every level. There’s also far fewer deeply-reported stories for the public to read.

Paying for media matters: I’m hopeful that more resilient models will grow out of this devastation, even if they are much smaller. It’s been encouraging to watch a handful of independent publications take hold, each of them based primarily on paid subscriptions, including HEATED, a climate newsletter by Emily Atkin and Arielle Samuelson; Platformer, a deeply reported tech newsletter by Casey Newton and Zoë Schiffer; and Sequencer, a publication that was just launched this week by a group of well-respected science journalists. 404 Media, a journalist-owned tech publication, recently announced it’s now profitable.

If you care about the future of journalism, I encourage you to pay for your media, wherever you get it! It really does make a difference in shaping where we’re headed.


What I’m reading

Chocolate prices to keep rising as West Africa’s cocoa crisis deepens (Reuters). “Expectations of shortages of cocoa beans – the raw material for chocolate – have seen New York cocoa futures more than double this year alone. They have hit fresh record highs almost daily in an unprecedented trend that shows little sign of abating,” report Maxwell Akalaare Adombila and Joe Bavier. “More than 20 farmers, experts and industry insiders told Reuters that a perfect storm of rampant illegal gold mining, climate change, sector mismanagement, and rapidly spreading disease is to blame.”

Bernie Sanders wants to meet Novo CEO next week on Ozempic price (Bloomberg). “Senator Bernie Sanders wants to meet next week with Novo Nordisk’s top executive about lowering the price of its blockbuster drug Ozempic, fueling controversy over the costs of GLP-1 drugs for diabetes and obesity,” report Madison Muller and Robert Langreth. “The Vermont independent said he’s considering hearings on the cost of GLP-1 drugs like Ozempic, but first wants to personally discuss their prices with Novo Chief Executive Officer Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen. … Sanders was responding to a study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open that found a month’s supply of Ozempic could be profitably made for less than $5. Sanders called the price of Ozempic ‘totally absurd’ and ‘outrageous’ and said it should be sharply lowered to what Novo sells the drug for in Canada or Europe.”

Senators stand up for potatoes as a vegetable amid reports of USDA change (The Hill). “Fourteen senators are calling on the departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) to keep the potato classified as a vegetable, amid reports that a joint advisory committee is considering ‘the interchangeability of starchy vegetables and grains,’” reports Sarah Fortinsky. “In a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the senators on Tuesday made the case that the potato is a vegetable, not a grain, pointing to its nutritional benefits, its physical characteristics and its horticultural scientific classification.”

Does decaf coffee contain a harmful additive? Advocates want to ban a certain chemical in the brew (STAT News). “Consumer health advocates are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to ban a key chemical, methylene chloride, used to decaffeinate coffee beans,” reports Nicholas Florko. “While the chemical is almost entirely removed during the decaffeination process, advocates say that a little-known nearly 66-year-old federal law mandates the agency ban the additive because it has been proven to cause cancer in rodents.”

A simple new technique could make your eggs more humane (New York Times). “Every year in the United States, more than 300 million male chicks are hatched. But because they don’t lay eggs or produce valued meat, they are typically killed within a day, usually shredded alive in industrial grinders. The practice, known as chick culling, is replicated on a huge scale around the globe, with an estimated 6.5 billion male chicks killed each year, or around 200 each second,” writes Cara Buckley. “But now an American egg producer said he plans to begin selling eggs from chickens bought from a hatchery equipped with new technology that avoids that grisly outcome, a first in the United States… Indiana-based Egg Innovations, which sells 300 million free-range and pasture-raised eggs a year.”


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