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July 28, 2015, 8:01 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Newsonomics: The halving of America’s daily newsrooms

If you’re lucky enough to have the right deep-pocketed owner buy your paper and steady it, you’ve won the lottery. If you’re in a town whose paper is owned by the better chains, or committed local ownership, your loss will probably be mitigated. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.

Cigar maker. Elevator operator. Pinsetter. Iceman. Lamplighter. Switchboard operator.

Local daily newspaper reporter?

How soon will we have to add this once-stable occupation to the list of jobs that once were — occupations once numerous that slid into obsolescence? (Not to mention the even more colorful spittleman [hospital attendant], rotarius [wheelwright], and hamberghmaker [horse collar maker].)

In this morning’s annual census release, the American Society of News Editors found its first double-digit decline in newsroom count since the Great Recession of seven years ago. Newsroom jobs dropped 10.4 percent — down to 32,900 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 U.S. dailies, 2014 over 2013. That’s the loss of 3,800 jobs in just one year. (Detailed table at bottom of this column.)

How do we put this loss in perspective? This is only the third double-digit percentage decrease since ASNE began tracking newsroom staffing in 1978. And this year’s loss happened in the best U.S. economy in close than a decade. Daily newspapers have bled people in good times and bad.

At its top, newsroom employment hit 56,900 in 1990.

Today’s data also tells us that the trend of the last decade — that it’s best to be either very big or very small — is picking up still more momentum. From the report:

Two newspaper categories experienced increases. The number of employees at newspapers with daily circulations between 250,000 and 500,000 increased by 13.98 percent. Newspapers with circulations under 5,000 had a 15.9 percent increase in the number of employees. All other circulation categories saw decreases in overall employees, with the biggest drop, 21.58 percent, among newspapers with circulations between 100,000 and 250,000.

Of the 10 or so dailies still selling more than 250,000 editions a day, three (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today) are national, leaving seven other big ones, including The Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and the Star Tribune.

All have seen their share of woes, but for the most part, they fare better — and fund their newsrooms better — than the average daily (“The newsonomics of Pulitzers, paywalls, and investing in the newsroom”). Cause and effect? That’s part of what’s going on here, and partly the benefit of scale.

On the other end of the spectrum, the smallest dailies pattern out more like the biggest weeklies. They tend to serve local communities with unique local news, inviting and rewarding loyalty. Their continuing investment in newsrooms tells us something about their belief in creating a better product to maintain that customer base.

In between, though, it’s a tale of woe. That big 21.5 percent drop highlights the metros caught strategically between being regional and local. It, too, is a 10-year-old trend (The newsonomics of Tribune’s metro agony).

If this report deepens a sense of sadness, it’s not really surprising. As I’ve documented as best as I can the ongoing job cuts at Digital First Media (“Newsonomics: When news companies are no longer built to last”), the second biggest U.S. newspaper company by circulation, we could only sense the pervasive cuts elsewhere. A week earlier, I’d asked the question: Do newspaper companies have a strategy beyond milking papers for profit? In that most egregious cases of short-term, profit-maximizing, community-be-damned thinking, the strategy of managing decline necessitates this level of job cuts.

Remember: These are largely 2014 cuts. All of the cuts of 2015, which have been steady but little reported, won’t be represented in the numbers until a year from now.

Topping the ASNE report is its parallel survey of minority employment in newsrooms. ASNE intended this long-running survey to hold publishers’ feet to the fire, tracking how much the industry’s hiring and retention improved newspapers’ abilities to cover their increasingly diverse communities. In the pluralistic society of 2015, even the term “minority” seems outdated, but the goal has never been more important.

If the people bringing their communities the news — in both digital and in print — remain mainly white, local news operations’ irrelevance only grows. So how did dailies do by this measure?

Percentage of minorities in newsrooms remains relatively steady…The number of minority leaders has dropped by 3 percentage points, with 12 percent of participating organizations saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color…

Of those 32,900 [total newsroom U.S.] employees, about 4,200, or 12.76 percent, are racial minorities. That’s a 0.58 percent decrease from last year’s 13.34 percent despite the substantially smaller newsroom employment in 2014.

The percentage of minority journalists has hovered between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade. In 1978, when ASNE launched its Newsroom Employment Census of professional full-time journalists, 3.95 percent were minorities.

So, 12 to 14 percent of newsroom staff are minorities. Meanwhile, “minorities make up 37.02 percent of the U.S. population; that number will increase to 42.39 percent by 2025,” the report notes.

Despite ASNE’s shining a light on that disconnect, and the diversity efforts of many editors and executives, the needle hasn’t moved. All the while, in this age of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Waller County, society — of all colors — requires better journalism.

For the second time, ASNE surveyed online-only news sites, and in the 47 responding, it found 19.2 percent “minority” employment. For its part, ASNE deserves credit for its continuing support of minority leadership and other diversity-affirming programs.

As life shattering as job loss may be journalists, they aren’t our prime concern here. It’s the news poverty we — readers — are experiencing. If we project the recent decline forward, we’ll have one-half the number of daily journalists working in 2016 or 2017 as we did 16 years ago.

Will hitting the halving point finally send a signal of NEWS EMERGENCY?

Probably not. Who would send it? Who would receive it? What does any citizen/reader feel he or she can really do about it? If you’re lucky enough to have the right deep-pocketed owner buy your paper and steady it, you’ve won the lottery. If you’re in a town whose paper is owned by the better chains, or committed local ownership, your loss will probably be mitigated.

Otherwise, you’re out of luck.

Last week, I wrote about the mess at Gawker. Certainly, the site had committed an journalistic sin in the anachronistic outing of a business executive seeking a gay escort. Yet the fire and brimstone (“The vital lesson in Craggs’ and Read’s Gawker jeremiads”) of its quitting editors at least displayed spirit. While it may have been misplaced, just beyond anarchic teen spirit, it was spirit nonetheless — a spirit we’ve seen so seldom displayed by everyone from top editors to working journalists in local newsrooms. They’ve watched newsrooms be emptied, news products (digital as well as print) shrivel, and communities grow increasingly underserved. I understand that some working journalists won’t speak out of fear — but it’s hard to comprehend why so few people in and out of authority will stand up, acknowledge what’s happening, and seek public solutions to this halving of daily journalism.

Projections based on responses to annual employment census
  Total work force Minorities in work force % minority
1978 43,000 1,700 3.95
1979 45,000 1,900 4.22
1980 47,000 2,300 4.89
1981 45,500 2,400 5.27
1982 49,000 2,700 5.51
1983 50,000 2,800 5.60
1984 50,400 2,900 5.75
1985 53,800 3,100 5.76
1986 54,000 3,400 6.30
1987 54,700 3,600 6.56
1988 55,300 3,900 7.02
1989 56,200 4,200 7.54
1990 56,900 4,500 7.86
1991 55,700 4,900 8.72
1992 54,500 5,100 9.39
1993 53,600 5,500 10.25
1994 53,700 5,600 10.49
1995 53,800 5,900 10.91
1996 55,000 6,100 11.02
1997 54,000 6,100 11.35
1998 54,700 6,300 11.46
1999 55,100 6,400 11.55
2000 56,200 6,700 11.85
2001 56,400 6,600 11.64
2002 54,400 6,600 12.07
2003 54,700 6,900 12.53
2004 54,200 7,000 12.95
2005 54,100 7,300 13.42
2006 53,600 7,400 13.73
2007 55,000 7,400 13.43
2008 52,600 7,100 13.52
2009 46,700 6,300 13.41
2010 41,500 5,500 13.26
2011 41,600 5,300 12.79
2012 40,600 5,000 12.32
2013 38,000 4,700 12.37
2014 36,700 4,900 13.34
2015 32,900 4,200 12.76
POSTED     July 28, 2015, 8:01 a.m.
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