The past year has been a difficult one for a free and independent press. An unprecedented number of journalists and other media workers have been killed in the war between Israel and Hamas. A Wall Street Journal reporter was imprisoned in Vladimir Putin’s Russia on trumped-up charges of espionage. Elon Musk hit bottom (until the next time, of course) by boosting a vile antisemitic conspiracy theory to his 166 million followers on X/Twitter, the social platform he bought and then trashed. Once celebrated digital news outlets like BuzzFeed News and Vice Media hit the wall. And the local news crisis grew worse.
Yet the news media in 2023 were also defined by comedy, absurdity, and even some signs of hope. Gannett, for once, did not make headlines for shutting newspapers and laying off staff. Instead, it endured mockery — and some praise — for hiring reporters to cover Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, and for unleashing artificial intelligence on high school sports with predictably hilarious results. Fox News paid a massive libel settlement and jettisoned mega-star Tucker Carlson while CNN attempted to reinvent itself for the second time in two years. On the bright side, 22 foundations got together to provide $500 million for community journalism over the next five years.
AI was probably the biggest story in journalism in 2023, but in terms of how it might substantively affect how we report and consume news, it’s still bubbling just a bit beneath the surface. That’s likely to change in 2024. In the meantime, here’s a look back at the year that was.
A deadly year for journalists
The war between Israel and Hamas made 2023 an unusually deadly year for reporters and photographers who courageously put themselves in harm’s way. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more media workers lost their lives during the first month of the Israel-Hamas war than in any month since the organization began tracking such deaths in 1992, with at least 63 killed through Dec. 13. The Israeli Defense Forces have warned news agencies that they are unable to protect journalists reporting from Gaza, telling Reuters and Agence France-Presse: “Under these circumstances, we cannot guarantee your employees’ safety, and strongly urge you to take all necessary measures for their safety.” CPJ reported that 18 other journalists died elsewhere in the world through Dec. 13, including two in Russia’s war against Ukraine, down from 15 in 2022. The media death toll also included two in Cameroon, two in the Philippines, and one in the United States. In that last case, Dylan Lyons, a 24-year-old television journalist, was fatally shot while covering a shooting near Orlando, Florida.
The defenestration of Twitter
After Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, bought Twitter in late 2022 for an overvalued $44 billion, he drove it into a ditch and then got out of his Tesla, grabbed a shovel, and buried the remains in the cold, dark ground. Now, you could argue that Twitter was always a small niche service, but what a niche: As the favored digital playground for media folks and politicians, it punched well above its weight. But Musk empowered white supremacists and all manner of trolls, used his own account to amplify a falsehood-based attack on a young reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and, in perhaps his most perverse move, renamed the platform X. By late 2023, users were fleeing and the value of the company had dropped by more than half. Major advertisers abandoned the platform shortly after Musk endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory and when a study found that ads were appearing adjacent to neo-Nazi accounts. Musk denied the latter allegations and sued Media Matters for America, the liberal organization that produced the study. But with X/Twitter a shadow of its former self and with the Twitter diaspora spread out among alternatives such as Threads, Bluesky, and Mastodon, it became clear that an important part of the social media era was drawing to a close.
A journalist behind Russian bars
We had no sooner celebrated the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison when Vladimir Putin struck again. In March, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested during a reporting trip and has been held by Russian authorities ever since on transparently false charges of espionage. “The Russian government locked Evan up for simply doing his job. Journalism is not a crime,” said U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy, who also called on the Russian government to release Paul Whelan, a Marine Corps veteran held since 2018. Gershkovich’s detention recalled a similar incident in 1986 involving Nicholas Daniloff, then the Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report. Daniloff ultimately gained his freedom when he was traded for a Soviet spy. In an op-ed piece for the Journal, Daniloff, a 1974 Nieman Fellow who’s now a retired Northeastern University journalism professor, wrote: “We need to protect and honor the bravery of foreign correspondents, photographers and stringers all over the world, reporting in difficult and dangerous circumstances. And to my fellow Russian correspondent Evan Gershkovich: Courage.”
Gannett’s glitzy celebrity beats
Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, has been slashing and burning its newsrooms for years, a trend that only accelerated after it merged with GateHouse Media in 2019. But though your local paper may no longer cover city hall, Gannett is giving you something else to look forward to: more stories about Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, brought to you by two full-time reporters hired to follow the celebrities’ every move. Now it would be one thing if the company planned to use its starry-eyed scoop-mongering to drive revenues and rebuild its grassroots reporting corps. But this, after all, is Gannett. Despite some modest rehiring in 2023 after cutting about half its workforce since the merger, there are no indications that more Taylor Swift stories will generate the sort of revenue that will, in turn, lead to more school board coverage.
Big bucks for local news
The local news crisis continued apace in 2023, with the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School finding that news deserts are spreading faster than community journalism startups can be launched — and that such startups are leaving out less affluent communities in urban and rural areas. Fortunately, local news got a major boost in the form of a philanthropic initiative called Press Forward, which brought together 22 foundations that pledged $500 million in support over the next five years. “We have a moment to support the reimagination, revitalization, and rapid development of local news,” said John Palfrey, president of the MacArthur Foundation, which is leading the effort. And though there were some questions as to whether that $500 million consists of entirely new money and if such a highly publicized effort might dampen grassroots fundraising, there’s little doubt that Press Forward will provide a much-needed boost.
Fox News’ expensive lies
After briefly attempting to move on from Donald Trump following the 2020 presidential election, Fox News returned to the fold by doubling down on Trumpism. That proved to be financially disastrous after Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox and proved that Fox hosts knew they were lying when they promoted the claims of Trump associates that Dominion had manipulated ballots to steal the 2020 presidential election. Fox paid a massive $787.5 million settlement to avoid going to trial, but the turmoil continued. Seemingly out of nowhere, Fox fired its top-rated host, the far-right extremist Tucker Carlson. Months later, Fox News’ nonagenarian founder, Rupert Murdoch, announced his retirement, solidifying the handoff to his son Lachlan Murdoch that had begun several years earlier. By November, Fox News had gotten its groove back, promoting fake news that a fatal car accident on the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls had actually been a terrorist attack perpetrated by Islamist radicals. Clearly, Fox News executives had learned their lesson — that is, if you’re going to make things up, make sure there are no identifiable plaintiffs who can sue you.
Artificial intelligence, genuine stupidity
From transcribing interviews to making sense of public documents, artificial intelligence can help streamline a news organization’s workflow and free its journalists for more important tasks, such as — oh, just to name one example — covering high school sports. Oops. Unfortunately, folks at several Gannett papers got the not-so-bright idea of using AI to write up school sports contests, producing such instantly mockable howlers as “a close encounter of the athletic kind.” Gannett declared a pause, but it was hardly alone. Microsoft’s news aggregation service, MSN, used AI to describe a 42-year-old NBA player who had died as “useless.” Sports Illustrated, at one time among our most celebrated magazines, published sponsored content from a third-party source that not only may have been produced in part by AI but also included fake bylines with AI-generated writers’ profiles, complete with photos. And NewsGuard, a service that studies journalistic credibility, released a study that found 49 content farms “that appear to be almost entirely written by artificial intelligence software.” The sites covered a variety of topics such as politics, entertainment, technology, and health. What could go wrong?
The digital froth goes flat
It was a year of reckoning for nationally focused for-profit digital news organizations. And the symbol of that reckoning was BuzzFeed News. In the spring, the Pulitzer Prize-winning outlet was shuttered as part of a general downsizing at BuzzFeed, which announced it would cut 15 percent of its staff. BuzzFeed News wasn’t alone, though, as nearly 2,700 news jobs were eliminated in 2023, and media employment losses altogether topped 20,000. Vice Media declared bankruptcy, Vox laid off 7 percent of its employees, and the feminist site Jezebel shut down, only to be quickly resurrected under new ownership. Legacy newspapers like the once high-flying Washington Post were hit, too. But what happened to digital news — free journalism based on an advertising model that never materialized — was the result of a unique set of circumstances well summarized by Josh Marshall, founder of the political site Talking Points Memo, a successful but relatively modest venture. Marshall wrote that “this is fundamentally a story about the arc of social media which first provided tech-savvy publishers a distribution bonanza and then slowly starved them of revenue as the same platforms engrossed greater and greater shares of the ad revenue publishers have traditionally relied on.” That’s an epitaph for the end of a dream.
What was that all about?
The leading obsession of 2023 within media circles was the rise of artificial intelligence. So when word came on the Friday before Thanksgiving that the board of OpenAI — the developer of ChatGPT — had fired its chief executive, Sam Altman, a frenzy of coverage followed. Nearly all of OpenAI’s 770 employees signed a letter demanding that Altman be reinstated. (Another, anonymous letter urged the board to stand firm.) Microsoft then hired Altman and his principal lieutenant, Greg Brockman, offering them free rein to set up what essentially would have been OpenAI 2.0. Finally, four days later, the saga ended with Altman’s triumphant return to OpenAI. It was as if the entire Steve Jobs NeXT interregnum had played out over a long weekend. But Altman’s win may prove to be a loss for the rest of us. Before all this happened, ChatGPT was a for-profit arm of OpenAI, which in turn was governed by a nonprofit board. The board’s role was to tap the brakes and prevent its artificial intelligence products from being used for harmful purposes. Now, with Altman’s return, it’s full speed ahead. Money wins. Money always wins.
The sporting news
The New York Times announced in July that it was going to disband its sports department and hand off coverage to The Athletic, the money-losing digital outlet it had acquired in 2022. Thanks to some imprecise language used by other media, word got out in some circles that the Times was going to abandon its sports section altogether. Fortunately, that did not prove to be the case — and when the dreaded day arrived, readers discovered that sports were still being offered in the print edition. Unfortunately, the move marked the end of a long tradition. Though New Yorkers had long turned to the city’s tabloids for news about their favorite teams, the Times sports section had featured elegant, intelligent writing for more than a century. The sports writers at The Athletic are no slouches, but a tradition was lost when the Times outsourced a significant beat to a different part of the company. Worse, the New York Times Guild charged that union-busting was behind the change, as Athletic employees, unlike those at the Times, do not belong to a union.
Chaos at CNN
A little more than a year into his tenure as head of CNN, Chris Licht was unceremoniously dumped in June when a humiliating profile published in The Atlantic made clear that he wasn’t up to the job. It was the latest chapter in a long debacle that
ensued after the new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, replaced chief executive Jeff Zucker with Licht in early 2022. Zucker, who resigned after it was learned that he’d been carrying on an affair with an underling, had remade CNN as MSNBC Lite, filling the prime-time hours with anti-Trump talk shows and enjoying success in the ratings. Licht proceeded to tear all that down, firing popular on-air figures such as Brian Stelter and John Harwood, apparently because they were too liberal, and presiding over a live interview with Donald Trump that quickly devolved into a MAGA rally. Now veteran media executive Mark Thompson has the task of rebuilding the network as he did earlier with The New York Times. But will his cantankerous boss, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, allow Thompson to do what needs to be done? Don’t touch that dial.
Truth is the first casualty
In wartime, misinformation and disinformation run rampant. That certainly was the case following an explosion at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Oct. 17. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, CNN, the BBC, and others immediately passed along as fact a claim by the Hamas government that the explosion was caused by an Israeli airstrike, and that some 500 people had been killed. They all had to walk back that claim after subsequent developments showed the explosion was probably caused by a misfired rocket launched by Islamic Jihad, a Hamas ally, and that the death toll was much lower. That may have been the most notorious example, but it was hardly the only one. For instance, accounts on X/Twitter and Facebook purported to show a “Hamas terrorist with a kidnapped Jewish baby girl in Gaza.” In fact, the video, posted on TikTok before the war began, was of a girl who had gotten lost and was asking two men where her parents were. The Dutch investigative news organization Bellingcat has published a useful guide to the uses and misuses of social media during war, with examples of disinformation from Gaza and Ukraine. The article, by social media editor Charlotte Maher, also offered a sound piece of advice: “Watching footage from war zones can cause trauma. … Always ask yourself if there is a genuine reason you need to view this footage.” And if you do, make sure it’s real.
Dan Kennedy is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and the co-author, with Ellen Clegg, of “What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate,” to be published by Beacon Press in January 2024. Follow Dan on Threads at https://www.threads.net/@dankennedy_nu.