Supporting Quality Journalism in the United States

Most news agencies throughout the 20th century were for-profit entities, and they raked in money hand-over-fist. Warren Buffett, the billionaire businessman based out of Omaha, Nebraska, built a large part of his early empire buying regional newspapers across the United States. The logic behind the decision to do this was easy to follow: newspapers were consumed by everyone in a particular locality. They charged a subscription fee, which covered the cost of physically printing the paper and delivering it to each individual home. There were enough subscribers that allowed enough density for paper deliverers to be able to do so quite cheaply. Every print ad sold on the newspaper and every classified advertisement put into the paper was essentially profit. Newspapers made a lot of money, which allowed for people like Buffett to reinvest their earnings and buy into more newspapers, growing media empires. 


For a number of reasons, this business model no longer has the same economic dynamism as it did in the 20th century. Readership is down - the internet has led to a growth in the number of news organizations, both physical and digital, meaning all outlets are competing for our eyeballs at all times. Because readership per paper has decreased, advertisement revenue has fallen as well. To make matters worse, that very profitable “classified” ads section of the newspaper has virtually been completely erased by organizations like Craigslist. Online classifieds let you post your requests virtually for free, erasing people’s needs to pay for classified ads in their local paper. 


At a high level, this makes running a news outlet in the United States very hard. You’re competing for eyeballs, having to produce better quality work to retain your readers with less money to do so. In an era of mass partisanship, more people are also looking for news outlets that better reflect their own ideological leaning. This means that local, well-reported and fact-checked journalism can be pushed by the wayside in favor of speculative, rumor-based news that confirms people’s prior feelings. Blogs, substacks, video news, and social media reporters provide information in short snippets that align people into news bubbles, adding another challenging condition to local news organizations. Social media algorithms reward news that causes us to react more, spurring poorly researched articles to the top. This means that high-quality media, which costs more to make, is given less air time and in turn makes less money at the same time. The economics are upside-down, making this model unsustainable in its current form.


By definition, the more local the news you provide, the fewer number of readers you can reach. If you have fewer readers, you cannot make as much money, meaning you cannot invest a lot of money into a large staff. Investigative journalism, the deep-dive stories that win journalists awards, is remarkably expensive as you must pay a journalist’s salary for quite some time before they can break a story. But to pay that salary, the paper must have a good, stable source of income. That can only be achieved with a certain scale - if each reader of the paper gives you X amount of dollars, and your costs are higher than those dollars you receive, you must: 1) increase the number of readers, 2) increase the number of dollars each reader gives you, or 3) cut costs. 


In the low margin business that news has become today, there isn’t much more room to cut costs. News outlets big and small in the United States have continued to cut jobs and resources deeper and deeper, sometimes going right past the bone and shutting their doors for good. Organizations continue to shutter across the country when there are no more cuts to be made but the business still can’t afford to carry on. 


We see this every day: I did my undergraduate education in Santa Barbara, California. In 2023, the Santa Barbara News-Press filed for bankruptcy and closed permanently. It was founded in 1868, meaning an institution 155 years old no longer exists because the economics of the business were too difficult to maintain. More than half of U.S. counties have little to no access to local news at all, according to recent research out of Northwestern. On average, 2.5 newspapers are shutting their doors every week in the United States, per Northwestern. 


To survive, we have seen a lot of creativity in the news media landscape. Nonprofit news organizations have popped up to bridge the information gap that is being created. Instead of being subscription based, they are donor based. They raise funds from private foundations, grants, donors, and also run advertisements. Some publications are now running live events like conferences, making money off of ticket sales. By only having digital publications, they save money on the cost of physically printing and delivering papers. Digital native publications mean they are only published online, where the cost to actually deliver an article over the web is pretty cheap. They are email marketing professionals, optimizing for donations and helping ensure they can continue to fund their important work. A couple examples of these great organizations include Calmatters and Voice of San Diego


These publications thrive based off of their diversified income streams. In spite of Calmatters and Voice of San Diego’s success, there are still a number of news outlets that are very far from being able to monetize their reporting as effectively. Subscribers and donors can change from year-to-year, meaning it may be difficult to know exactly how much revenue is coming through the door each month. News media companies need to shore up their finances to prepare for this, diversifying their income streams in case they lose a number of subscribers or donors. 


Famous in Media was explicitly created to be that diversifying source of income for journalism outlets and artists. I believe that newspapers, digital media outlets, and individual artists are creating great art and not monetizing it to its fullest extent. Remember what I said earlier? To be successful, you need to: 1) increase the number of readers, 2) increase the amount of money you receive from each reader, or 3) cut costs. 


There is no more room to cut costs for any creative or journalist. There simply is not enough money flowing around to pay artists and writers adequately across the board. The internet has incentivized us to look for writing and art that is free. But for us to read thoughtful news and view great art for free, someone else is paying for it somewhere. 


And the costs have already been incurred - there are a large number of photographs, graphics, images, and portraits that have not been effectively monetized. If you run a newspaper for a medium-sized town that has 10,000 readers, you are missing out on an effective way to share the art and images you have created with the rest of the country. If you are an artist presenting your creations at galleries and street vending, your target market is only who you can encounter that day. In both instances, you are missing out on broad reach. To reach a large number of people effectively, you must be able to share your art digitally. Sharing this art digitally allows you to be able to market it and sell it. 


Famous in Media believes by sharing great art from news stories and individual artists, we can help news outlets overcome some of the secular headwinds the changing media business model is undergoing. We can help boost the number of people that will interact with the art you have created, and gain more revenue by capturing more of the value you have created for your customers. It is possible to grow income by continuing to do what you do best, but optimizing to share it with an even broader audience. As an example, the lake cabin in Big Bear may have images up on the wall from Lake Tahoe’s monthly publication. The San Diego transplant may put up a news story about their home town in their office, serving as a conversation starter and a reminder of home. Art prints allow us to move digital art into the physical world, from bits to atoms. The digital catches our attention, and the physical holds it. 


Warren Buffett decided to sell off his newspaper holdings in 2020. He owned 31 daily newspapers and 49 weeklies. Buffett believed that only the very large publications will survive since they have a large enough reader base to keep their business afloat through declining ad revenue and print circulation. Even the large institutions (New York Times, Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times) have done layoffs. Digital native offerings like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox, have also shuttered entire divisions and done massive layoffs over the years. The Los Angeles Times laid off 115 people in January 2024, projecting they would lose between $30-$40 million if they didn’t cut their headcount and their costs. Their own projections showed that declining readership and subscriptions needed to turn around if they were going to forego any layoffs. 


I think Buffett and the current businessmen running papers are wrong. I think if we throw in the towel, we will lose strong, local reporting that keeps politicians in check. I think if we give up on local journalism and only let the big companies continue, we will lose a greater sense of our community and the vital services only a local paper can provide. Each community will become a part of a faceless blob consuming a few sets of national media, blue or red.  


We need to protect democracy, protect a free press that isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, and protect our ability to learn about what is going on around us. The challenges facing journalism are numerous, but I believe they are surmountable. The solution is to continue to monetize your existing IP. Since costs cannot be cut any lower without kneecapping services, news outlets must become better at making more money. The business is changing, and adapting is the key to survival. 


One way to do that is to sell art prints of the images already created. People can decorate their homes with your art knowing they are supporting a good cause, and sharing a good story along with it. Gen Z and Millennials don’t just care about a low price - they care that what they’re buying supports a good cause. Famous in Media sells high-quality prints at a low price, while also sharing that revenue to sustain journalism in America. It’s a win-win-win all around. 


There are surely other ways to bolster news media’s budgets, and Famous in Media is always on the lookout for additional ways to help in this regard. If you’ve made it this far, thank you. We couldn’t support anybody without the help of readers like you. If you believe as strongly in our mission as we do, please consider purchasing an art print that speaks to you. Please also consider sharing our page with your friends, family, and loved ones. 

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