The ebb and flow of the journalism business isn’t all that dissimilar from the famous hammer-and-dance metaphor of the COVID-19 pandemic—a big swing of widespread reckoning followed by a period of relative quiet and stability. There was a hammer during the mass lockdowns this past spring, as the pandemic’s staggering economic consequences created what one executive described to me as “a Darwinian moment” for many gobsmacked publishers. Then, during the summer of 2020, with its whimsical outdoor dining and physically distanced backyard cocktail hours, it felt more like a dance, as downsized media companies recovered from the immediate fallout and adjusted, as they always do, to diminished budgets and business prospects and head counts. (Editors have become experts at doing more with less.)
But now fall is upon us and winter is coming, and just as new embers of coronavirus transmission are flaring up in curve-flattened precincts like New York and New Jersey, so too are fresh signs of media peril. The two publications that find themselves, unfortunately, in the headlines this week aren’t exactly the most major players, but they are noteworthy and influential nonetheless. One is Quartz, an eight-year-old website once seen as the mobile-first and millennial-focused future of global business journalism. The other is California Sunday Magazine, which was heralded as an unlikely print success story after it launched in 2014 and quickly became a National Magazine Award-winning must-read for the West Coast smart set.
Quartz, as the Wall Street Journal reported, has been put up for sale just two years after Japanese media firm Uzabase paid $86 million to take it off the hands of its esteemed company of origin, Atlantic Media. Already decimated by steep coronavirus cuts—and in the midst of pivoting from an advertising model to a subscription-based one—Quartz saw its revenue for the first half of this year plummet to $5 million from $11.6 million during the same period in 2019, when total revenue tumbled 22% to $27 million, according to the Journal.
California Sunday, meanwhile, ended its print edition in June amid the economic wreckage of COVID-19 because, as its editor in chief wrote at the time, a “big-circulation print magazine won’t be viable for us this year or next year.” Now the publication has suspended publication entirely and its staff are out of jobs—they were informed Monday that California Sunday’s parent entity, the live-events-oriented Pop-Up Magazine Productions, had lost its support from Emerson Collective, the philanthropic investing organization of multibillionaire Laurene Powell Jobs. (“Emerson Collective and Pop-Up Magazine Productions are proud of their five-year partnership,” the entities said in a joint statement. “We look forward to possible future collaborations as Pop-Up Magazine Productions enters this new phase as an independent company.”)
What makes these two sob stories all the more sobering is that Quartz and California Sunday were publications that both seemed to be thriving just a short while ago. These were premium offerings, not garbage-y content farms, staffed by whip-smart writers and editors known for producing high-quality journalism enjoyed by equally smart readers. They seemed to have carved out reasonably sustainable business models—in Quartz’s case, high-end native advertising and, later, high-end subscriptions; in California Sunday’s, subscriptions and memberships combined with targeted, advertiser-friendly circulation, distributed inside the Golden State’s major newspapers. Most glaringly, they had both received the privilege of being funded by seemingly well-intentioned benefactors with tons of dough.
Powell Jobs, heralded just a couple years ago as a possible media-industry savior, quickly came under fire. “It’s absolutely unconscionable that Emerson Collective—run by a woman worth $19 billion—would drop them and the equally wonderful Pop-Up Magazine during a pandemic. Journalism needs help to survive this; short-term profits cannot be the only factor,” tweeted Wired editor Megan Greenwell, who described being “heartbroken the magazine’s run is ending.” Journalists’ eulogies flowed on Twitter: “In a time of so much loss,” wrote Pamela Colloff, “it’s particularly devastating to lose a publication like @CalSunday.” As business journalist Tom Gara put it, referring to California Sunday and Quartz, “Two grim stories today of deep pocketed investors backing away from news.”
If anything, these two brands are reminders of how fast and easy it is to fall in the punishing modern media landscape, where the once-mighty HuffPost can’t find anyone who wants to buy it, and even a powerhouse like Fox News isn’t immune to layoffs. Of course it’s not all doom and gloom out there. The New York Times is thriving as ever. Journalists are pulling in six-figure salaries writing their own Substack newsletters. A legacy dinosaur like The Economist is doing gangbusters in subscriptions and podcasts, as John Elkann, of the powerful Agnelli family that now controls the venerable title, boasted during a virtual talk hosted by the Economic Club of New York last week. As for digital natives, take a look at, say, Business Insider, which has been hiring up a storm and plans to hire even more in 2021, thanks to the wealth of reader revenue it now generates.
Still, despite the bright spots, as we ride further into the sunset of this horrible, heartbreaking, “wish I could bury my head in the sand and forget that it ever happened” sort of year, don’t be surprised if you see that hammer come down yet again.
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