Laura Bassett is co-founder of the Save Journalism Project. She was formerly a senior culture and politics reporter at HuffPost before being laid off in 2019. She currently writes for GQ Magazine, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, the Daily Beast, and other publications. Along with John Stanton, she began the Save Journalism project after losing her job, when she became interested in why so many great news publishers were beginning to go under and having to lay off staff.
- How did you first get interested in journalism and politics and have these always been passions of yours?
I’ve always had a passion for writing, but wasn’t sure what direction it would take. I was in a graduate program for English Literature in 2008, thinking I wanted to go on and do a Ph.D. when Obama first ran for president. I became kind of obsessed with the election and started blogging on the side, and then I realized I enjoyed doing my politics blog a lot more than I enjoyed sitting in a library writing research papers that only one or two people would read. So I applied for a reporting internship at HuffPost, and the rest is history!
- Which are some of the biggest issues with modern journalism and how have they coincided with your career so far?
I think there are three big ones: Lack of diversity in newsrooms, the question of what objectivity in political journalism means in the age of Trump, and the financial/existential crisis facing the industry as a result of the digital age and big tech’s monopoly on ad revenue. The last one affected me the most directly, as I was laid off in 2019 after ten years at HuffPost. The site just wasn’t generating enough profits, having to compete with tech giants like Google and Facebook for ad money, and I lost my job along with scores of other journalists. I never expected to be freelancing for the first time, involuntarily, in the middle of my career, but it has proven to be a great exercise for my writing.
- What have been the most valuable skills/pieces of knowledge that you have learned from working at HuffPost?
I never went to journalism school, so most of what I know about reporting I learned at HuffPost. I learned how to write a compelling lede and nut graf, how to draw interesting things out people in interviews, how to show both sides of an issue without necessarily drawing a moral equivalence between them. I learned how to build source relationships and hustle for scoops. And I developed a deeper knowledge of politics and my particular beat, which for a long time was women’s rights issues. I learned how to own up to mistakes immediately and correct them in a transparent way, how to accept constructive criticism, and how to tune out the internet trolls and harassment. All the basics!
- What motivated you to co-found the Save Journalism Project and what made it special as an initial idea?
John Stanton, formerly of BuzzFeed, and I were laid off the same week in January of 2019. It was very unexpected for both of us: He was the Washington Bureau chief at the time, and I was a senior politics reporter. There seemed to be very little rhyme or reason to who was laid off that year; news outlets were forced to cut hundreds of staffers and had to make some really tough decisions. At the same time, local newspapers like the New Orleans Times-Picayune were going under entirely. We could see that our whole industry was facing a potentially fatal financial crisis, and we felt like if we didn’t fight for it ourselves, we didn’t know who would. So this project was born.
- How can you and your teamwork with or against big tech companies to improve the integrity of news?
Big tech companies are the financial competitors to news publishers, and it isn’t a fair fight right now. They gobble up about two-thirds of the digital ad market, leaving very little money for the actual content creators and publishers from which they also profit. Right now, we are looking to Congress and federal and state antitrust regulators to conduct antitrust investigations into the big four– Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon–and hoping that when they see the devastating impact those companies are having on newspapers, they will break them up and/or regulate them and create a more even playing field.
- In the era of fake news and heavy media bias, how can technology be used for the greater good in terms of addressing populations?
“Fake news” is a term the president has thrown at real news outlets because he doesn’t like their coverage of him. By and large, the news stories he calls “fake” are true and factual. But the internet does have an actual fake news problem, which is the disinformation that fringe activists and bad actors spread online, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. I think social media platforms have a massive responsibility to closely monitor and regulate the false propaganda raging through their sites, especially close to election time.
- In your opinion, how do you see the future of journalism and how can the Save Journalism Project be a part of this future?
I don’t know what I see for the future of journalism because, especially since COVID, we are on an extremely troubling trajectory. What I hope to see in the future of journalism is a sustainable business model– one in which people are happy to pay for news, and one in which news publishers and magazines don’t have to compete with Google in a David and Goliath-type situation for ad money to survive. And ideally, newsrooms can stop firing and start re-hiring again, because so much talent has been lost in the past few years.
- Why is it so important that our country defends the freedom of the press and how can this freedom lead to a more functional democracy?
We’re at the nexus of several historic national crises at the moment, including a deadly pandemic, so journalism–especially local journalism–has never been more important to get life-saving information across to the people and to hold powerful people and institutions to account. At the same time, we have a president attacking the press and encouraging violence against us, along with these devastating financial issues. Without a robust and thriving free press, no one is there to uncover corruption and expose the lies of politicians and inform the electorate and just, basically, keep people aware of what’s happening in their communities and the world at large. That in itself is a massive threat to democracy.
- What kinds of opportunities do you have for people who may want to get more involved with the Save Journalism Project?
Please contact us! We’re looking for help raising money, we’re funding freelance stories on local news deserts, and we can always use the voices of other journalists who would like to fight with us to save this industry.
- Do you have any clear goals or visions for expanding this Project’s influence, and if so, what are they?
Our primary focus and objective are on policymakers. We aim to get U.S. lawmakers and regulators to address the exploitation of the online marketplace by Google and Facebook which gives them an unfair advantage in the competition for digital advertising revenue. Antitrust regulators in Australia and the U.K. have begun to take these kinds of steps that are necessary and we are encouraged that their American counterparts appear to be on the verge of similar actions.
It is only after the distortions of the marketplace have been addressed that we can rebuild a sustainable business model for journalism in the digital age, particularly local news. Given our focus on policymakers, we are more supporters rather than drivers of changes in the industry. We do not favor any specific model for what kind of journalism industry emerges from these multiple ongoing crises, only that we believe it must include a viable method for news outlets to monetize their content through advertising.