DANIEL VAUGHAN: News media enters a dark winter

Winter has arrived for the news media. Layoffs are spreading beyond CNN and into every area of the press, from news down to punditry. The perfect storm of a recessionary environment and the failed emergence of a second “Trump bump” has media outlets flailing. Now, like many other sectors of the economy, layoffs have arrived for the media.

CNN’s layoffs being in earnest.

During the summer, I wrote about CNN firing people like Brian Stelter of “Reliable Sources” infamy. I wrote that “The Trump bump is gone. Ad dollars are vanishing. Recession is on the horizon. If you accept these precepts, the time to prepare is now. Cutting fat like Stelter, who helped destroy the reputation of an entire news network, is an easy choice.”

More importantly, though, was the conclusion: more layoffs were coming. “There’s also more clean-up on the way, at CNN and elsewhere. A perfect storm is brewing in the press, and Stelter is one of the first casualties.”

Media outlets are feeling the pinch, and that storm has arrived. Variety reports that more layoffs hit CNN and its sister network HLN. The article calls the HLN cuts a “gutting” of the entire network as CNN’s management figures out how to cut approximately $3 billion in expenses. Among the big names cut on the CNN side were Chris Cillizza, Susan Glasser, and Rachel Metz.

Other media outlets are faltering too.

CNN isn’t the only one in the industry dealing with these pressures. NPR announced a near-freeze in hiring to cut $10 million in expenses or nearly 3% of its total budget. Ad revenue is drying up for NPR and other media outlets, leaving them scrambling for cover.

Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, announced a 6% cut to its journalist workforce. The Washington Post is ending its Sunday magazine and firing several art and culture writers and critics. CBS, AMC, Disney, and Roku are all “nixing positions or freezing hiring.”

Independent outlet “The Recount,” founded by John Battelle and John Heilemann, is on the verge of shuttering altogether. The founders are searching for buyers to avoid shutting down completely. The news outlet has never made a profit in the few years it has existed. It’s reportedly lost $10 million versus only $1 million in revenue.

The Dark Winter has arrived.

The Washington Post described this as a “dark winter” on the media landscape. Additionally, the non-news content divisions of some of these networks are also getting hit. Paramount TV Studios and CBS Studios began initial layoffs, mostly “in the business affairs, casting, production, and legal departments.”

Many of these outlets used the Trump years to significantly expand their operations and footprints, even while attacking the former president day and night. Now that he’s mostly gone from the scene and America is moving on, media outlets have seen revenues drive off the side of a cliff.

None of these outlets has enough ad revenue to keep the lights on or make payroll. Subscription-based options for news services are floundering too. Everywhere you turn, there’s excess and fat across the media landscape, and the only solution is cutting. Unfortunately, these cuts are only beginning for most of those employees.

CNN warned this scenario would play out over the summer as it changed management hands. Former anchors and personalities “left” the network, although everyone could see these were firings in anything but name. It’s hard to feel much remorse beyond the sadness of anyone losing their job.

Media needs Trump to save them.

Most media outlets used Donald Trump to stave off these decisions from several years ago. Now, as they’ve drifted back to reality, the ground is much lower than it was. The result is a crash in the press where reality is proving to be very rude as the post-Trump era settles in.

It’s worth noting, too, that these are the early cuts. We don’t have a recession call, advertising revenue has dried up since the summer. There’s still plenty of room for this winter to deepen and get colder for the participants in the industry.

Perhaps the most interesting of the group is the Washington Post. They have a wealthy benefactor in the form of Jeff Bezos. But Amazon is laying off people, too, with the latest round of layoffs in the tens of thousands. Amazon is one the largest companies on the planet, and even it isn’t immune to economic pressures. The Washington Post’s troubles will likely worsen, forcing them to look at more than just a weekend magazine.

Winter has arrived. There’s no avoiding it now. The hardest partisans in the media may claim a recession isn’t here for the sake of the Biden administration. But it’s abundantly clear that the business decisions of these networks tell another story. Recession has hit the press. They ignored all the evidence, but there’s no getting around a pink slip.

I wish no ill on anyone and hope they all find jobs again. But it’s hard to avoid concluding that the press acted like the grasshopper in the summer, not preparing for an inevitable winter. Now, they’re scrambling to survive. The time to prepare was the summer when things were good. That time has passed, and the “dark winter” is here.