Business/Finance

2011 sees acceleration of newspaper job cuts

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.

8 replies »

  1. If one is inclined to think is these terms, this is the best news the one percenters have had all year. No one benefits from the death of journalism like the corrupt and powerful.

    Truly devastating news. And all the happy talk about “citizen journalism” notwithstanding, there’s no relief in sight, is there?

  2. It kills me to see this trend continue. The music industry has begun to recover a good bit from the internet phenomenon via a few solid strategies: better pricing, embracing the internet, and strong-arm tactics from the major labels and the RIAA.

    I wonder, though, how local journalism can compete by any similar methods. On one front, you’ve got international organizations like the AP & Reuters willing to sell directly to internet outlets. And on another front, you have a populace that generally isn’t aware of the value of local news. If your average person fed on decades of evening news thinks that local news only equates to weather plus sports scores plus traffic fatalities and homicides, it’s a pretty tough sell.

  3. This a sad situation but really, the people have spoken. They want their news to be online, free and current. And news is just better online than it is in dated, withering papers. That being said good journalism is a very much needed component of our society so the newspaper companies should stop being so attached to basically being vehicles that deliver Sunday advertising circulars and make the online world work for them. Our area’s main newspaper’s website (in San Francisco) looks and feels pretty much like it did in the early 1990’s. It could be so much better if they just could see through to letting go of their sad, dead tree, diesel truck editions.

  4. Of course, here we had the closing of the News of the World. One might quibble about whether what they did was journalism, but the people buying it thought it was a real newspaper.

    On another note, it is true that newspapers in the UK have also been losing circulation, and have had to tighten ship, although not nearly to the extent as in the US. But newspapers here have been considerably more proactive in experimenting with formats, with adding stuff that they wouldn’t have ten years ago, that sort of thing. Or by expanding–The Guardian is working hard to become an international resource, much as the NY Times was when it still had credibility. I notice a lots of citations of the Guardian regularly now among US bloggers. And while the websites haven’t been as good, they’ve improved considerably over the past four years or so.

    One of he main differences between the UK and the US, though, still likes in the fact that media ownership here isn’t nearly as concentrated as it is in the US, given the relative size differences of the two countries. That may change, though.

  5. I’ve always contended that someone will still need to cover the City Council and the School Board. Local papers are killing themselves because they forget this fundamental fact and, instead, pad their papers with syndicated national shit that can substitute for a dozen other varieties of syndicated national shit–which is the same shit people can find for free on the internet. So why pay 75 cents a day when I can get my shit for free?

    Robust local coverage makes a paper indispensable to the community it serves. Too bad so many newspapers lose sight of that as they’re trying to watch their double-digit profit margins instead.

  6. Old Journalism had its chance several years ago. The problem is not that people want “free news”. Its that people want GOOD news, REAL news. When the major news networks saw bloggers and citizen journalists stealing readers, they SHOULD have used their pull to get stories no one else could. Information no one else could. Insiders, exposed, and summaries on REAL issues; global warming, haliburton, iraq etc etc. Instead they played politics, willing to entertain opinions they knew were false, or did not research, merely so they could have a “debate” to sell. New stopped being information and became entertainment. Look at CNN.com. Half the stories are trivial. There is no local news. There is nothing real to read. So people left, went to blogs, often better written with a known opinion and attempting to avoid the false dichotomies current news embraces.

    When journalism was threatened, they ran to yellow journalism and entertainment rather than the basics; research, information, good writing. Might have worked if there wasn’t an alternative. I pay for my blogs; I don’t pay for daily rags. And I am sad local journalism is dying out with traditional journalism.

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