A Look Back Before We Move Forward
In the last newsletter of the year, some thoughts in review
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
This is likely the last Second Rough Draft of the year, so it seems a good time to take stock of what progress we made as an industry—and where we didn’t. Elsewhere, I appreciated NiemanLab’s invitation to peek forward a bit.
A Mixed Record in Washington Coverage
First some good news: It feels, on balance, like 2022 was the year when the press finally (in the eighth year of his perpetual campaign) figured out how to report on Donald Trump. The muted reception of his muted declaration of candidacy, the aggressive coverage of his unfolding criminality around secret government documents, the acknowledgement of how much personal grievance and white supremacy are central to his message—all of these were encouraging. Before we pat ourselves on the backs too much, it’s important to note the significant role I think was played in this belated awakening and emboldening by the House January 6 Committee, whose hearings reminded many journalists of outrages they had begun to normalize.
On the other hand, coverage of the institutions of national government continues to be enormously disappointing. Since the Supreme Court dropped the mask in Dobbs, and as it apparently prepares to make up new law governing affirmative action after 45 years of relative stability, there have been some scattered stories about the Court’s politicization, such as this from the New York Times on Samuel Alito’s apparent leak of an earlier decision. (That seems, at least to me, to make Alito the prime suspect in orchestrating the leak of Dobbs-- anyone who would do this once when the stakes were smaller would presumably consider doing it again when they were much greater.) But such coverage has hardly been sustained, and most Court coverage remains high-end stenography about briefs, arguments and opinions rather than the enterprise that this power grab requires.
On Capitol Hill, coverage also remains quite unsophisticated, I think. One need only look to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to demonstrate this. First, relatively little attention was paid, in observing her impact on pending legislation, to the precariousness of her political position, facing re-election in a presidential year in a state Biden carried by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020 following Sinema’s own 56,000-vote margin amid a Blue Wave in 2018. This situation was underlined last month when the unhinged Kari Lake came within 17,000 votes of Arizona’s governorship.
Just last week, Sinema’s departure from the Democratic Party was quite badly covered in most places. Much too little was made of how her obvious decision to wait until after the Georgia runoff had greatly helped Democrats, depriving the GOP of the turnout and fundraising advantages that would have accrued if control of the Senate had been on the line there. In fact, it looks a lot like Sinema and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer may have made a deal for her to keep her committee assignments in exchange for this delay, perhaps with the further understanding that Sinema would have continued to caucus with Democrats if Herschel Walker had prevailed in Georgia, thus preserving their majority. In all, there was less than meets the eye to Sinema’s announcement, itself something that journalists are often reluctant to acknowledge.
Troubled National News Organizations
Looking across the year, I’m struck by the national news organizations facing fundamental challenges. BuzzFeed seems to have essentially surrendered as a serious purveyor of news, CNN has been consumed with its own personnel and then budget issues. Lately, and potentially most troubling, are signs of difficulty at the Washington Post. In recent weeks, we’ve learned that their subscriber count has fallen more than 15% in the last two years, that the paper currently loses money and that it is spinning off the content management system business that once seemed to have such promise. Yesterday, management signaled layoffs ahead, ostensibly because of changing editorial priorities. Everyone who cares about news in this country should hope that Jeff Bezos isn’t losing his enthusiasm for the Post and that editors will find a way to reinvigorate it. On a potentially happier note, I mostly like Semafor’s “semaform” format, and appreciate their scoops, but remain puzzled by the business model.
A Dead End for Public Policy Solutions Until At Least 2025
Lots of time was spent this year on possible federal legislative answers to the business crisis of the press. In the end, both the Local Journalism Sustainability Act and Journalism Competition and Preservation Act fell short. While I have a hunch that there will end up being more bipartisan legislative action than expected from the forthcoming narrow Republican and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate respectively, the press seems a particularly unlikely beneficiary. The prospects in states and locales may be a bit brighter, but I hope a good bit of the energy recently focused on legislative solutions will be directed to the harder, but ultimately more secure and effective work needed on business models themselves.
Local News Is Where the Action Is
Speaking of local, that seems, as 2022 draws to a close, where the action increasingly is in the evolution of the news business. The new Baltimore Banner is excellent (although I continue to worry about their reliance on subscriptions). Signal Cleveland’s recent deep-dive into the city’s new mayor was hugely encouraging. (I have consulted for them a bit on the business side.) The Texas Tribune, under new editor Sewell Chan, led the way with great coverage of the Uvalde horror. The “Every Voice, Every Vote” coalition aiming toward next year’s Philadelphia municipal elections is promising. (I consulted for the Lenfest Institute ahead of this project.) Here in New York, The City has displayed additional edge in its news report and greater ambition in its business operations. I could go on and on…
I said earlier this year that more merger and acquisition activity was both likely and called for in nonprofit news. Not too much of it has yet eventuated, but few columns got as much reaction. (These got the most.) I stand by the prediction, and maintain the hope. Conversions of legacy newsrooms to nonprofits should especially accelerate in 2023.
Finally, a Note of Thanks
This is the 43rd edition of Second Rough Draft in 2022. (They are all collected here.) Thanks so much for joining me on the ride. Subscribers nearly doubled over the course of the year, to more than 2100, open rates are now almost always well over 50% and views run over 2500 (and sometimes up to 5000) per issue. LinkedIn is a significant, and to me surprising, source of readers; Substack’s own network and app are as well. I deeply appreciate your encouragement and engagement.
Second Rough Draft will return in January. Happy holidays to you and your loved ones.
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