If you’re a working journalist, congratulations. You have survived a horrendous year of newsroom job cuts. The Newsosaur, Alan Mutter, compiles the sad, frustrating, dismaying news:
The number of jobs eliminated in the newspaper industry rose by nearly 30% in 2011 from the prior year, according to the blog that has been tracking the human toll on the industry for the last five years.
Mutter, working with data from Erica Smith, author of the Paper Cuts blog, notes layoffs have been horrific over the past four years.
Since Smith began her running count of publishing layoffs in the middle of 2007, 39,806+ newspaper jobs have been eliminated. This represents 11% of the all the jobs in an industry that, according to the Census Bureau, employed 360,633 individuals in 2007.
Worse, Mutter points out, the number of journalists in America’s print newsroom is at an all-time low. The layoffs, over time, have taken a staggering toll on newsrooms.
Nowhere has the toll been higher than in newsrooms, where staffing has slipped each year since 2005 to successively new modern-day lows.
Nearly 1 in 3 newsroom jobs have been eliminated since the number of journalists peaked at 56,900 in 1989, according to an annual survey by the American Society of News Editors. At the end of 2010, only 41,600 scribes were left on the industry’s payrolls.
If only a fifth of the cuts identified by Smith in 2011 were in newsrooms, then barely 41,000 journalists will be left at America’s newspapers at year’s end.
I’ve written repeatedly about the increasing need for good — even great — journalism and the declining ability of the newspaper industry’s ability to provide it.
The reason’s no secret. A decimated business model that a decade ago arrogantly wrote off the Internet as a credible competitor and a tectonic shift in technology that turned Everyman into a supposed journalist killed the industry’s centuries-old reliance on ad revenues. According to Mutter, 2011 was
a year that many newspaper people had hoped would be a time of relative stability after five years of successive revenue declines. Instead of steadying, advertising sales slid throughout 2011 and likely will come in at less than half of the record $49.4 billion achieved as recently as 2005. [emphasis added]
With the number of journalists half that of the historical high, who will produce the local stories that matter those tens of thousands laid off no longer do? As one of my colleagues at S&R advises me, the citizen journalist and the neighborhood blogger are inadequate replacements to produce quality local news.
Citizen journalists … say they will do for free what journalists used to do for money, e.g., cover school board meetings. Whether they do or not is another matter, but as a general rule, in any industry where people are willing to work for free, you end up with a bimodal distribution of returns — a few who make it very rich, and the many who make almost nothing. Examples include writing, acting, music, fashion, etc. It appears that journalism, or at least column writing, has become one of those industries.
Plenty of opinions on how to fix the news biz exist (see here, here, here, here, and here). Recent attempts to revive industry revenues have met with uneven success — permeable and impermeable paywalls, dalliances with social media, and so on. Foundations and non-profit organizations have taken up the mantle of investigative reporting on regional and national levels. But good local news is a vanishing commodity.
I wish I had answers. I wish more than 41,000 journalists will be holding governments and corporations accountable — that’s the job that needs to be done — in 2012. But the trend suggests the next year will bring more dismal news for those remaining in newsrooms. If you value good local news, you’re likely to be increasingly disappointed.