When it comes to the layoffs and buyouts that have hit newspapers over the last couple of years, copy editors seem to be the most at risk of losing their jobs. So it wasn’t too much of a shock when Leslie Norman’s husband was laid off from his copy editing position at The Wall Street Journal.
But then last year she was let go from her job as a news librarian at the Journal, and suddenly it seemed as though they were both working in at-risk, or perhaps even endangered, roles. (Her husband has since been brought back to work on contract for the paper.)
“We didn’t [think that way] until we were laid off,” she said. “I never saw my layoff coming—it was a total surprise.”
The loss of copy editors has been the subject of much lament and debate in this corner, as in other places. But the plight of librarians seems to attract less fanfare and hand wringing, as if we’ve all been shushed from saying something.
Norman doesn’t think things will ever be the same for news librarians.
“I see the news library as it once existed as probably dying,” she said. “But in many newspapers, it’s evolved into something else.”
According to data collected by Michelle Quigley, a researcher at the Palm Beach Post, over 250 news librarians (sometimes called news researchers) lost their jobs in the U.S. since 2007. Membership in the Special Libraries Association News Division, an organization for news librarians, has fallen to below 400 from over 1,000 in the 1990s. Entire news libraries have been shuttered and replaced by consultants or outside vendors.
Last year, the Detroit Free Press got rid of its last three librarians, eliminating the department entirely. Also in 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution let go of fifteen librarians, which also resulted in the closure of its research department.
It’s not hard to see why newsroom budgeters cast an eye towards the library when cuts have to be made. Most news librarians are never given a byline, though some receive research credit at the bottom of articles. The perception is that they mostly help archive a paper, a task that can, to a certain degree, be automated. Just as copy editors get the hook because they don’t generate content and therefore can’t fill space or generate pageviews, news librarians are shown the door because they’re seen as a holdover from a time when newspapers kept detailed clipping files on major topics and personalities, and when the “morgue” was a critical part of a paper’s operations.
Now that every reporter and editor has access to Google and a wide range of search technologies and online databases, the thinking is that they don’t need to call upon the Boolean expertise of librarians. You can see how it makes sense—except then the facts start to get in the way. In fact, the modern news librarian seems in many ways more important than ever. Even those old clipping files still come in handy.
When I spoke with Amy Disch, chair of the Special Libraries Association News Division and library director of the Columbus Dispatch, she said her team had accessed clipping files and hard copy photo archives more than ten times that day alone. But that’s the least of what they do at the paper. In addition to providing research services to support reporters, the library runs a newsroom intranet and wiki, provides data analysis for investigations, and offers a range of other useful services.
Then there’s the reality that just because reporters can access Google or search Nexis and other databases, it doesn’t mean they know how to use them properly.
“Reporters are on deadline and they want to do things as quickly as possible,” Norman said. “Over years, they’ve come to feel, ‘I can do my own research, I don’t need an intermediary anymore.’ Some of the problem with that is they don’t have time to get the best research if they do it themselves. Also, because of the amount of information out there, they may not have the understanding or wherewithal to go through and filter out what’s good and what isn’t.”
True, reporters and editors often make mistakes because they couldn’t find the best information, or because they went with whatever came back on the first page of a Google query. At a time of information abundance, it’s essential that newsrooms have information experts on staff. That’s what news librarians are.