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When I was just out of college, I worked for several months as a young reporter at a daily newspaper in Kansas. It was an experience that frequently felt out of a film, the way I would every day show up to work, and then be told to go out on assignment to the far end of town, narrow wire-ribbed reporter’s notebook in hand.

My career in journalism would wind up being rather short. I took a job in public relations to pay some bills, and never left. I have friends and acquaintances from this period, and I've watched their careers evolve over time. I'm just about 40, which means that my early days in public relations were in the period between the recession caused by the end of the tech crash and the mortgage fueled mania of the end of the decade. 

But even in a time of overall economic prosperity, things seemed grim in the news business. Chains were snatching up newspapers and subjecting newsrooms to brutal rounds of cuts as they pushed profitability above all else.

Local and regional papers lost their local movie critics, then their cooking correspondents and theater writers. There might not be a dedicated city hall reporter, or one who covered the school district. Desks sat empty in once cavernous newsrooms, at least until new owners sold off the real estate and moved people to tiny offices in the suburbs. 

I assumed that peoples' careers would be a slow march towards the unemployment line and then out of the industry. 

I was misguided. Over the next 15 or so years, many of these people not only stayed journalists, but they thrived. Sure there were budget squeezes and hiring freezes, but for many, new opportunities arose in the form of new startups and expanding institutions. 

Journalism in America became more centered, more national and less regional. The New York Times, which sat atop my younger self's hierarchy of media institutions, expanded rapidly. There were jobs, and a good number of them were good jobs that paid reasonably well. 

I would wonder if the media, prone to self-importance, was overly concerned with individual actions and layoffs. They were disruptive for people affected, yet despite many, many scare-mongering pieces of analysis to the contrary, there was never a shortage of well-written and well-edited journalism to read.

But something feels different today. 

Over the past three months, we've seen media layoffs in America that are unprecedented in their size and breadth. Dozens of institutions have announced major restructurings, from large internet groups like Vox and the Intercept to large newspaper groups such as the Los Angeles Times. A couple of buzzy startups have officially gone out of business, the Messenger not even eight months after a much-hyped start. 

Legacy institutions and startups are both impacted by the dramatic cuts. 

We've seen some of this in London, for example with the loss of AltFi, layoffs at Channel 4 and the Mirror, but it’s been more a steady drip of bad news rather than the avalanche of the last month in America. 

For someone studying the macro economy, this all can feel a bit strange. America is in many ways the engine of the world economy. Yes, there were hundreds of thousands of tech layoffs last year, but the overall employment and wage picture were sold. The markets are up, inflation has fallen. (This actually stands in contrast to Europe's moribund economy, which for some reason has not overly impacted reporting.)

This wave of culling seems detached from the traditional macro-economic cycle. 

I've read a couple articles that provide excellent content and some countervailing trends. The whole media is not in a spiral – The New York Times, Slate and other publications reported strong growth and stable finances. There are now hundreds of people making living wages through individual newsletters, which both sell ads and then subscriptions. I've found many of these authors to be unusually transparent, so we can understand their business model and how it works.

What really seems to be the issue is "great middle". Organizations at the very top of their niche or area are able to build sustainable businesses. Tiny, specialized ones only need a narrow audience to be profitable. Ones in the middle fall into a couple of categories – venture backed startups that are trying to rapidly scale, and those looking to survive but with a higher cost base. They are both vulnerable to finance becoming more expensive (as it is now) and investors pulling the plug in the face of large losses. 

What's unfortunate about this is that these "middle-sized" publications make up an oversized amount of the trade and specialty media that we deal with in our core sectors of finance and technology. Many beats are too wide and geographically diffuse to be covered by a single person, but also can’t support a newsroom of hundreds. 

Conferences and events (and more business intel products like Business Insider does) were introduced as ways to plug holes in a declining print business model, but after the pandemic they have struggle to create audiences of the size needed to bringing in enough revenue to survive. They also face increased competition from dedicated conference providers; some of whom are turning their brands into publishing arms. 

What to do? I'm wondering if we should make the support of these organizations more explicit. Slate and other digital providers have membership programmes, much like how people subscribe to other cultural institutions. Publications could take on a similar model, which gives a variety of benefits including access and a small tier of events.

Membership programs have become increasingly popular for areas of the media that are generally upscale and access driven. In entertainment, there’s Puck and Punchbowl in politics. There a ‘membership’ includes access to material but also other incentives, be it unedited interviews, Discord servers or free conversations with reporters.

Communications could be a powerful intermediary here. What if we sold discounted memberships to our clients alongside retainers? (To do those who say this would cannibalize full price subscriptions, I have news for you about how many corporates actually pay full price now.) 

There would be some pass through cost, but essentially we communications people would be ensuring that trade publications were providing sustainable support to an industry. We would have certainty about reporting. This could even be pooled across a series of publications. 

We would have to ensure that support didn't lead to demands for bias – but if membership was practically mandatory and the reporters weren't dealing with the money, perhaps it might be a workable system. Most corporations understand they need to pay for information, but exactly how and how much budget to allocate can be hard to parse. We can provide guidance on spend levels – and ensure money is spread around to quality publications of all sizes.

What I do know is that we need to experiment with change as journalism evolves. Perhaps my suggested model is off-base, but we should explore collaboration and support more broadly. I am trying to see the industry a less binary way than I did as a young adult – understanding that while there are challenges, history shows that evolution rather than wholesale destruction is the most likely path forward. 

Both communications firms and their clients have a vested interest in a strong, independent press that is both widely read and respected by current and potential customers. But in times of rapid change, we may no longer be able to sit back, take a passive role and assume that everything will work itself out.

Jon Schubin is a director in Cognito’s London office (although he is American)