Consolidations come at a cost

Last week, in a Q&A about covering losses in the journalism industry, Poynter reporter Kristen Hare observed that the newsroom mergers and consolidations that have resulted from the coronavirus pandemic often use terminology to obscure the full breadth of the loss. “If you lose a newsroom, and everybody in that newsroom has lost their jobs, and that community no longer has a newsroom, it’s closed,” Hare said. “It’s not a ‘merger.’ It’s a loss for the community.” 

In an ever-growing database tracking newsroom cutbacks, the Tow Center has recorded consolidations or mergers of more than thirty local journalism outlets—most owned by CNHI, a company based in Montgomery, Alabama. In Florida, CNHI-owned newspapers The Suwannee Democrat, The Jasper News and The Mayo Free Press announced the end of their print editions and digital content, noting that localized coverage would appear “periodically” in the Valdosta Daily Times. Local papers in Iowa, Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Texas—all owned by CNHI—made similar announcements. And in Kentucky, where The Morehead News, The Grayson Journal Times, and The Greenup County News-Times merged with The Daily Independent—spreading local reporting across more than a hundred miles from one coverage area to another—Al Cross from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues reported on The Rural Blog that “many dailies have swallowed up sister weeklies, but it’s unusual if not unprecedented for such a consolidation over such a distance.”

In some cases, merger announcements didn’t mention layoffs, but reporters nevertheless did lose jobs. In an update to Cross’s blog entry, he linked to a July article in the Daily Yonder, reporting that laid-off journalists from several of the shuttered Kentucky papers had launched  their own outlets. “Why do these journalists think they can succeed in publishing a local newspaper when a large corporation like CNHI couldn’t?” Amanda Page asks. One reporter answers Page’s question in an opinion piece for his new publication, The Carter County Times: “We live here. We care about here.”

While some announcements suggest that at least some newsroom staff are being retained, mergers and consolidations still signal an end to print editions and individualized coverage that is rooted in a particular place. As Iowa’s Keota Eagle announced in June, “The final edition will be the end of a newspaper exclusively serving the Keota community.” 

As publishers like CNHI continue to make cuts, it’s important to take stock of the cost behind every decision—in individual jobs lost, public meetings left uncovered, newspapers disappearing from community doorsteps. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe). 

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CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

PARTICIPATE IN A SURVEY FOR LOCAL NEWSROOMS: Tow Center Fellow Damian Radcliffe has launched a new online survey exploring the impact of covid-19 on local newsrooms and examining other changes that are shaping what local newspapers do and how they do it. If you work in a newspaper with a print circulation of 50,000 or less, please take a few minutes to contribute, and encourage others to participate. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the survey and its intended goals, Radcliffe has more, on Medium. The Tow Center will share the survey’s findings later this year.

Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • MORE LAYOFFS, CLOSURES: The Evening Standard will lay off sixty-nine members of its newsroom staff, The Guardian reported on Friday. In the United Kingdom, four weekly publications that had previously announced suspension have closed permanently, David Sherman reported for Hold the Front Page. KQED, a San Francisco radio station, announced that it would lay off 20 staff members. E!News” has been cancelled, The New York Daily News reported last week. The Wall Street Journal reported significant layoffs at NBCUniversal Media. And G/O Media laid off an additional fifteen staffers, this time in video, The Wrap reported. Kristen Hare, at Poynter, updated her list of media cutbacks to include—among a long list—layoffs and furloughs at Boston and Philadelphia magazines, copy desk layoffs at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, and closures and layoffs at Community Impact Newspapers in Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas.
  • ELIMINATING COOKIES YIELDS MORE REVENUES: Wired reported that when Dutch outlet Nederlandse Publieke Omroep eliminated targeted ads from its site, revenues increased, despite advertisers’ warnings to the contrary. The publisher allows site users to choose whether or not they want to allow cookies to track their browsing, and defaults to privacy when a user neglects to make a decision. Though European privacy laws make this model more viable, relying on contextual advertising rather than micro-targeting appears to be working for NPO, Gilad Edelman reports. “Because the network is no longer relying on microtargeted programmatic ad tech, it now keeps what advertisers spend rather than giving a huge cut to a bunch of middlemen,” he writes.
  • SHADOWY “PINK SLIME” SITES TRIPLE AS ELECTION APPROACHES: For CJR, Priyanjani Bengani reported last week that Tow Center research has identified a surge in “pink slime” outlets—newly-established and shadowy partisan websites that can be difficult to distinguish from local news outlets. “It is becoming an increasingly common campaign strategy for pacs and single-interest lobbyists to fund websites that borrow credibility from news design to help advance particular agendas,” Bengani writes. Yesterday, Axios reported that Facebook, in response to Tow’s research, will enact a new policy treating pink slime sites as political entities, holding promoted content to its designated standard for political posts, rather than allowing them to claim a news exemption.
  • THE DAILY MAVERICK IS LAUNCHING A PRINT NEWSPAPER: South African publication The Daily Maverick has announced their intention to launch a weekly print newspaper in the midst of the global pandemic that is battering the journalism industry. “We are all feeling overwhelmed,” the publishers wrote, adding that “trust, belief and faith in news brands, has made digital media consumption an unhealthy habit.” In May of last year, Anya Schiffrin wrote for CJR about the Maverick and its business model.
  • MEDIA CRITIC CREATES A LOCAL MEDIA STARTUP: Ken Doctor, longtime media critic at Harvard’s Nieman Lab, announced plans to start his own local news company, Lookout Local, a for-profit, public-benefit company whose location will put it in competition with hedge fund Alden Global Capital, The New York Times reports. “Lookout is where the digital world meets the real world, on our streets, in our civic groups, at our parks and clubs, and in the halls of government and aisles of business,” the company page states. For Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton has an in-depth Q&A with Doctor, digging into his thoughts on local news and business models for the future.
  • HOW LONG WILL THE COVID BUMP LAST? For What’s New in Publishing, Esthia Kezia Thorpe asks whether the increased attention to covid reporting—measured in clicks and subscriptions—will last. As news outlets experience increased engagement, the temptation to invest more heavily in subscriptions may prove unwise if the surge is temporary. And for Digiday, Steven Perlberg asks similar questions about the possible implications of an end to the Trump bump—the increased attention many media outlets have enjoyed as a result of their coverage of the president.
  • NEW DIGITAL SITE SUPPLEMENTS LOCAL NEWS LOSS: Soon after the closure of northeastern Ohio’s Youngstown Vindicator, some of the former paper’s journalists, in partnership with a digital media lab, launched a small digital site intended to fill some of the void, NPR reported earlier this week. The site, called Mahoning Matters, is part of the Compass Experiment—funded by McClatchy and Google. This funding has bought the site time, publisher Mandy Jenkins wrote on her website, but that time is not unlimited. “If we are going to keep Mahoning Matters going for the long haul, we need to establish more income sources sooner rather than later,” Jenkins writes. “Looking ahead, there isn’t a lot we can plan just yet, so we will keep on adapting.”
  • JOURNALISM THAT COLLABORATES AND LISTENS: For The Arts Fuse, Dan Kennedy reviews Andrea Wenzel’s new book, Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust. “If a new generation of community news organizations is to grow and thrive, then we need a renewed sense of civic engagement,” Kennedy writes. “And in order to foster that civic engagement, we need journalism that doesn’t just report the news but also listens and collaborates.” CJR has more of Wenzel’s recent work on community-centered journalism.
  • IN FAVOR OF GOVERNMENT SUPPORT: In an editorial for the Seattle Times, Christian Trebjal wrote in support of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, the bipartisan bill that would create three tax credits intended to incentivize support for local journalism: credits for local newspaper subscribers, advertisers, and to local newspapers themselves—to supplement reporters’ salaries. “There are two common paths to extinction. One is slow decline over decades, centuries or millennia. The world changes, and a species doesn’t keep up. The other is sudden disaster,” Trebjal wrote. “The paths aren’t mutually exclusive.” Newspapers, he says, stand now at the crossroads of both paths to extinction, and government intervention, despite its dangers, is both possible and necessary.
  • FOUNDATION FUNDING FOR DIFFERENT BEATS: For Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal, Alexander Russo wrote in support of Dallas Morning News’ Education Lab model as a promising approach for under-funded beats—providing a reporting team with foundation funding to operate within a commercial newsroom. “The strategy can be thought of as a compromise between a stand-alone nonprofit and traditional advertising- and subscription-based commercial journalism,” Russo writes. Though funding may be temporary and editorial independence more tricky to maintain, several newsrooms have experienced success with the model, he says.
  • IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: In support of local journalism, The New York Times created a searchable database that allows readers to identify local news outlets and, in some applicable cases, to directly support those outlets financially.  

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here.

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Lauren Harris is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites