The 2020 Journalism Crisis: A year in review

2020 was a banner year for news. While the year in journalism yielded intrepid political reporting amid a contentious election year, vital public health information amid a pandemic, and exacting historical analysis amid historic protests, publications across the country cut back: stripping salaries, ousting staffers, closing offices, and shutting down print editions. 

In the early months of the pandemic, commercial publications at every level made cuts in attempts to stay afloat. Some survived; others foundered. As public health expectations and restrictions waxed and waned, so, too, did reporting jobs and salaries. Reporters were furloughed only to be fired, fired only to be rehired, and offered buyouts after twenty years of tireless work. Some outlets crowd-sourced enough funding to produce local coverage before the November election. Many continue to publish work through the efforts of small, under-resourced teams.

Since March, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism has been tracking the cutbacks in the journalism industry, depending on news reports, press releases, Twitter announcements, and the work of collaborators like Poynter’s Kristen Hare. Looking back at a long year for journalism, we’ve outlined some of the trends among outlets attempting to outlast the crisis.

SPRING (March, April, May)

Many publications struggled to reduce the burdens on their bottom lines in March and April, leading to the biggest wave of industry-wide cutbacks this year, with job losses in the tens of thousands (by the end of April, The New York Times proposed an imperfect but “good estimate” of 37,000 workers laid off, furloughed, or having pay reduced). News producers—from BuzzFeed to the Sacramento News and Review—closed bureaus and cut back print editions. Myriad outlets furloughed staff and reduced hours. In April, numerous publications closed for good. 

This explosion in newsroom cutbacks across the country resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of affected outlets. According to the Tow Center, by the end of March at least 106 outlets experienced confirmed cutbacks and up to about 1,200 more newsrooms at big chains such as Gannett, Lee Enterprises and Adams Publishing Group were impacted by cuts as well. April saw an uptick in confirmed cutbacks that impacted at least 146 outlets and more chainwide cutbacks affected up to around 800 additional outlets.  

  • March 13, 2020 – Trump declares COVID-19 a national emergency.
  • March 25 – Congress passes a $2 trillion stimulus package, allocating around $370 billion to small businesses in what would become the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 
  • April 25 – Nearly three quarters of the Senate sign on to a letter asking the Trump administration to provide more support for local news.
  • Mid-April – PPP funding runs out.
  • April 25 – Congress approves a second stimulus bill that adds $310 billion to PPP.
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 SUMMER (June, July, August)

After a wave of PPP funding and an easing of restrictions on businesses in many places across the country, cutbacks slowed in the summer months. Many publications found unique ways to adapt to the crisis: hosting online events, investing in digital products, selling merchandise. In some places, publications reinstated staff that had been furloughed or announced an end to salary freezes. 

Cutbacks, however, did not stop completely. In June, The Athletic cut pay and laid off eight percent of staff. In July, Vox Media laid off around seventy employees who had previously been furloughed. In August, NBCUniversal announced significant layoffs as well. Across all three summer months, there were a combined ninety-five outlets that suffered confirmed cutbacks. A new trend also arose: many furloughs implemented in the spring were converted to permanent layoffs at chains like McClatchy (84 of the 115 furloughed employees were laid off) and digital outlets like Buzzfeed (50 of their 74 furloughed staffers were let go). While some newsrooms were able to build back staff and resources, many continued to operate at reduced capacity.

  • August 8 – PPP applications close and the program ends. Many small businesses and news organizations are still struggling to stay afloat, as indicated by cuts that continue to happen over the fall. 

FALL (September, October, November)

The fall saw  another bump in cutbacks, many of them attributable to chain-wide cuts implemented by corporate offices. In October, Gannett—the largest newspaper chain in the U.S.—announced voluntary buyouts to all 21,000 of its employees, setting a deadline to accept the offer exactly one week before the November election plagued with disinformation and political manipulation. Around five hundred Gannett staffers accepted the buyouts, including “60 editors, 19 photojournalists, seven managing editors, three executive editors and 124 reporters,” according to Poynter. In September, furloughs at iHeartMedia were converted into layoffs. Last month, iHeartMedia became the latest chain to make more massive cutbacks, with further layoffs affecting one hundred and twenty-five employees. Industry-wide, fifty-five outlets have permanently ceased operations since the start of the pandemic. At least eight more have closed their physical offices indefinitely as they reassess their future real estate needs (Newsrooms owned by Tribune Publishing account for five of those eight).

As we head into 2021 and the winter wave of COVID-19, with record high cases, Congress still hasn’t passed a stimulus package, and many media companies await the possibility of additional funding. Commercial newsrooms continue to make efforts to diversify revenue streams and monetize subscriptions. Many defunct newspapers are now at risk of losing their archives, which are valuable community artifacts and historical resources. On December 1, 2020, the Pennsylvania Press and Journal asked their community for financial support so they could continue to pay to keep their website live until a person or organization could take over the task of permanently preserving their work, which dates back to the 1800s.

The loss of good journalism is a blow to the wider world, and cutbacks make it difficult for struggling publications to reimagine coverage. Losses to newsrooms, print, cities, salaries, and jobs threaten civic engagement and epidemiological preparedness, in addition to artistry, community, individual lives, and—in some cases—the good, solid feeling of holding a printed newspaper in one’s hands

Journalism has changed before, and it will change again. This year, many changes have been sudden, unexpected, and destructive. Whatever comes next will require imagination, grit, and dedication to the communities that journalism is meant to serve. 

 

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).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past nine months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

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.)

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 and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

 

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Lauren Harris and Gabby Miller