When National Public Radio (NPR) announced in late February the cancellation of several broadcast and podcast programs, as well as the layoffs of 10% of its national staff, the network’s CEO blamed a budget deficit of $30 million. The latest NPR cuts were the deepest the network has made since the Great Recession in 2008.
NPR is not alone among US news organizations in moving to cut back on costs and content.
The 2022 American Journalist study from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School reports that the number of working reporters in the US fell over two decades from 116,000 in 2002 to 85,000.
Over the same time, of course, the number of news outlets exploded online. Industry analysts have connected the downturn of professional newsrooms with the expansion of misinformation and growing threats to public peace.
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Leaving journalism to its fate in the marketplace irresponsibly puts dollars before democracy, says Victor Pickard, co-director of the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Pickard, author of Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society, asserts that the traditional reliance of media on advertising revenue is a broken business model that needs a re-boot.
“I think the current problem that NPR, public media, and indeed our entire media system is facing at the moment gives us an opportunity to think about what our media should be doing in a democratic society,” he tells me.
“We’ve become desensitized to these constant cuts across media sectors, whether we’re talking about the newspaper industry or cable television and now our public media. But we’ve also become desensitized to the idea that our public media are being cut because they’ve lost advertising revenue and corporate underwriting.
“This really should give us pause,” Pickard says. “That’s not what a non-commercial media system is supposed to be doing. It’s not supposed to be so dependent on the market. And especially given these cuts in other places, we really should be looking to our public media to serve as a kind of safety net.”