Since early April, Kristen Hare—a reporter who typically covers local news innovations for the Poynter Institute—has been compiling a list of newsroom layoffs, cutbacks, closures, and furloughs, reporting most recently that the covid-19 pandemic has closed more than fifty local newsrooms across the United States. The Journalism Crisis Project—a joint venture between the Tow Center and the Columbia Journalism Review—depends on the work of important collaborators like Hare.
For this week’s newsletter, I talked with Hare about the work of reporting on the current financial crisis facing journalism, the importance of collaboration, and the gaps in coverage as the pandemic treads on. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: How did you transition from covering local news innovation to tracking newsroom layoffs?
Kristen Hare: It started with layoffs and a cut to print at the Tampa Bay Times, which is my local newspaper. I am a subscriber, and I also work in partnership with them on an obituary project. I felt that one particularly, because I know the people in that newsroom and how hard they’ve been working to cover the coronavirus. I can just remember thinking—I don’t know how I’m going to do my job in a pandemic. I don’t know how to find solutions when there are nothing but problems.
My boss, Neil Brown, said, “We’re shifting what you’re doing to cover the pandemic and local news and the impact full time.” Basically—this is the story. Give it everything.
I sat down on a Friday morning and started collecting all of the layoff stories that we had written, pulled in Nieman Lab’s coverage of alt-weeklies, tips, and a couple other places that had great reporting. By the end of the day on Friday, I still wasn’t done. I gave myself a weekend, finished on Monday, we published on Tuesday, and it’s just been a daily part of my life ever since.
I’m searching constantly for the places that fall through the cracks, that don’t make the New York Times or the big news. Those places are just as important to count.
CJR: How much time are you dedicating to tracking cutbacks?
KH: In the beginning, it was really all I was doing. It’s slowed down somewhat, but as this pandemic wears on, and we realize the real timeline of it, I don’t expect that will last forever.
CJR: You’re counting and tracking layoffs, furloughs, and closures, for the most part?
KH: Early in the list, I included pay cuts and cuts to print. I felt like both were important to include as much as we could. At some point, when we can all take off our masks and be together again, I want to know if the journalists who had their pay cut are getting it back, and I want to know if the places that cut print are bringing it back, or if they successfully transitioned to digital and had their audience transition with them. And I do plan to follow up.
CJR: I’ve been thinking lately about follow-up. At this point, months in, some of the furloughs have quietly become layoffs. And some of the pay cuts have quietly become furloughs. There’s this underlying second phase that’s noteworthy but requires a lot of effort to report on.
KH: It does. The other thing that has really become clear by doing this work is that we’re losing newsrooms. And they’re calling losses “mergers.” But 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. It’s not a “merger.” It’s a loss for the community.
The other thing that I think deserves a place on the list is what’s happening to newsroom buildings. In many cases, we no longer have a physical space. Journalists can work at home because of the pandemic, which makes sense, and newsrooms can save money and journalism jobs if they are not renting a physical space. But again, let’s at least stick a flag in that, so that once this is over, we can see if those newsrooms are going back in and reestablishing themselves physically in those communities. Because it is important that there is a place where people can walk into and talk to a human being—as important as it is for us to be attentive and available digitally. Not everybody can reach us that way. If we are part of a community, we should have some sort of physical space in that community, even if it’s just a corner in the coffee shop or the library.
Let’s track all these things, so that they’re not allowed to disappear anonymously.
CJR: What do you hope to see come out of this work?
KH: I think the most important goal is to witness and record what is happening. The role of witness has always been a critical part of journalism. And so that is where we start.
There will be lots and lots of work that will come out of this. What we’re doing is recording the history that we can go back to and mine when we want to know what areas lost the most journalism, who was the most affected. I hope that I can get back to solutions and that watching how places are dealing with this will help with that work. There are at least five or six communities that have lost their newsrooms, and people in the communities have joined together to bring them back. That’s a story I haven’t gotten to yet, but I think it’s a really important one.
But really, I don’t know what will come out of this, because I’m still reporting. And I plan to continue doing that until somebody stops me or this stops.
CJR: As this crisis continues, where do you see gaps in the reporting?
KH: One limitation is that I’m not telling any human stories—this is just a list. I know from my work on obituaries that in reporting, you need the data, and you need the faces. I would like to know where the people who are being laid off in this pandemic are going, and what they’re doing, whether that’s sticking with journalism or moving into something else. I think those stories should be told.
I want to know if there are trends in who has been affected by the cutbacks. I have a theory that the Great Recession knocked a lot of Gen Xers out of newsrooms, particularly local newsrooms. I don’t know who will be the most affected by this pandemic, but I think it’s important that we ask those questions—which generations, racial and ethnic demographics, parts of the country?
And alt-weeklies do some of the best local media accountability reporting—they have been a great win-win where they exist. Having journalists that can hold each other accountable in the same community is maybe even a luxury at this point. I’d like to examine places that still have that accountability and see what impact that’s had on the community.
CJR: How can we move forward, continuing to do this work?
KH: I think it’s really important that anybody who cares about this finds a way to work together. This is the time for pooling resources. If there are people that feel like this is work they should be doing, reach out. Those of us that are doing this work want to hear from you.
There will be time to mourn. But right now, it’s just really important that we don’t let up.
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, collecting information on changing newsrooms and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).
- 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.)