We know traditional news organizations across the United States are shrinking, but there is little data on what the journalists who leave a shrinking major newspaper do next. At the turn of the 21st century, the Los Angeles Times was one of the biggest newsrooms in the world; despite experiencing significant cutbacks over the 1990s, it still employed nearly 1,200 journalists. But the unpopular sale of the newspaper to the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Company in 2000 marked the beginning of 18 years of rapid decline in the size of the newsroom. By 2005, the newsroom had already dropped to around 940 employees. That number fell below 700 before Tribune filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and to around 400 by 2018.
That year, between November 8 and 18, 114 LA Times alumni took an online survey distributed via two email listservs and a Facebook group. (108 respondents completed the full survey, while six skipped some questions.) Exactly half of respondents identified as women and the other half as men. Most respondents (91 percent) left the LA Times after 2000, with the years 2008 and 2015 posting the most departures. Of the respondents, 38 percent were laid off; 33 percent took a buyout; and 20 percent left to take a different job and 3 percent retired, some influenced by the cutbacks going on around them.
The seemingly simple question of “what former LA Times journalists do for work now” is actually immensely complicated. Of the 92 respondents who currently work, 64 percent reported currently working in journalism in some form, but just 29 percent reported working exclusively in journalism, and only 14 percent reported working in journalism in a full-time position. Many former LA Times staff currently work multiple jobs or gigs across different fields, reflecting the broader trend in the industry toward freelance workers. In recent months, it should be noted, the LA Times has been hiring under its new billionaire owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, and six respondents reported that they have been rehired by the LA Times, while several more mentioned writing for the paper on a freelance basis.
In broad strokes, this research shows that there is movement of journalists towards for-profit public relations work. Many journalists transitioned to work that produces a different type of information, from journalism for nonprofit investigative outlets to PR content and industry analysis, and on to books, university lectures, nonprofit campaigns, and many more formats.
Below are key findings from the survey.
Notes on methodology: For all graphs, n is the number of respondents who answered the question, a is the total number of answers selected (for questions in which respondents could select multiple answers). The survey sample is not necessarily representative of those laid off at the LA Times. Respondents might have different interpretations of what areas of work are, so responses reflect how LA Times alumni understand their own current work, rather than reflecting standardized professional categories.
Role(s) at the LA Times
Respondents could select multiple answers. 73 respondents (64 percent) selected just one role, while the rest selected multiple.
Circumstances of departure
Of those 38 employees who took a buyout, five respondents specified that they felt pressured to accept a buyout. The other 33 voluntarily accepted a buyout.
Date of departure from the LA Times
In 2008, layoffs constituted a majority (21, or 62 percent) of departures. Nearly half of the total 43 layoffs reported across this survey occurred that year. In contrast, of the respondents who left in 2015—the year with the second highest number of departures reported—none were laid off or pressured to accept a buyout. Most (88 percent) voluntarily accepted a buyout.
(Note that age refers to age at the time of taking the survey, in November 2018, and not to age at the time of departure from the LA Times.)
We do not know enough about the survey respondents’ representativeness of the broader population of LA Times alumni to draw conclusions about age-related trends in layoffs. However, of the 48 respondents who were either laid off (43) or felt pressured to accept a buyout (5), all but one were at least 50 years old at the time of taking the survey. In 2008, the year with the most layoffs, 16 of 21 (76 percent) respondents who were laid off were at least 50 years old at the time. When we add those respondents who felt pressured to take a buyout, 19 of 24 (79 percent) respondents who left involuntarily in 2008 were at least 50.
Are you currently working?
Of the 22 respondents who do not currently work, only five reported not working at all since leaving the LA Times. (Each one of those five is now at least 60 years old). Of the 17 who have worked since leaving, 12 continued working in journalism in some form, although seven of those paired journalism with another area of work such as education, research, or consulting. Three of those who continued in journalism founded a new media platform with multiple contributors after leaving the LA Times, and five are interested in returning to work in journalism in the future.
Self-reported current areas of work
Fifty-nine out of 92 currently working respondents (64 percent) reported working in some form of journalism. Twenty-seven respondents reported working only in journalism. Twenty-four percent of all respondents—or 29 percent of those currently working—worked exclusively in journalism as of November 2018.
Respondents could select multiple answers. Fifty-three currently working respondents (58 percent) selected just one area of work, while the rest selected multiple. Respondents could also select “other” and write in additional areas of work. These responses are included in the graph but marked with asterisks, because it is possible that other respondents would have also identified with those areas of work if they had been listed as options.
Self-reported primary area of work
If respondents selected multiple areas of work, they were then asked to identify a primary area of work. The graph above shows the combination of responses selecting a primary area of work and the responses of those who had only selected one area of work in the previous question.
Self-reported primary area of work broken down by working status
When we look at respondents who reported having a full-time job, journalism is still the most commonly identified area of work, but its lead over the second most common area of work—communications/PR—is smaller than in the previous two graphs, which don’t discern by working status. Meanwhile, we can see that freelancers make up the largest group of respondents who reported journalism as their primary area of work. Full-time journalists constitute just 13 of the 43 respondents (30 percent) who identified journalism as their primary area of work.
Those 13 full-time journalists amount to 11 percent of all respondents, and 14 percent of respondents who reported working at the time of the survey.
Blurred boundaries of journalism
One finding of this research is that the professional category of journalism means different things to different people, even when those people are all former LA Times journalists. As such, self-reported professional categories need to be taken with a grain of salt. Of 36 respondents who identified their current employers within journalism, seven people listed companies whose primary product is not news; instead, these employers were consulting or retail companies that publish industry analysis and related content on their websites. Other survey respondents classified the same or similar employers under non-journalistic work, in the categories of “communication/PR” or “research.”
Employment at universities can also blur the boundaries of journalism. At least 27 respondents have worked for a university since leaving the LA Times, in capacities that range from teaching positions in journalism departments to employment in communication departments. Some categorized teaching in a journalism department just as “education,” while others categorized it as “journalism” and “education.” Some classified their work for a university’s website as “journalism,” while others categorized it as “communication/PR.”
Of the 14 respondents who reported writing books since leaving the LA Times, six have authored a book, five have edited a book, and another three have provided research, fact-checking, or other support for other authors. But while some of these respondents who reported writing or editing a book classified their area of work as “journalism,” others categorized their work as “other,” sometimes writing in “publishing” or “author.”
Current responsibilities in journalism
The graphs above and below focus only on 56 respondents who reported currently working in journalism. (Note there were 59 in total, but three individuals skipped this question.)
Half of the respondents (28) selected multiple journalistic responsibilities. Recall that 64 percent of all survey respondents selected only one role at the LA Times. If we look just at these 56 respondents who still work in journalism today, they reported holding an average of 1.6 roles in their past career at the LA Times (which, for some, encompassed different roles at different time periods). In comparison, they selected an average of 1.9 roles to describe their current work in journalism, which is only measured at a single moment in time. This hints at a trend that matches many journalists’ anecdotal experience today: they are expected or required to fill more responsibilities across different types of roles than before.
Types of journalistic publications respondents currently work for
Involvement in creating a new media outlet
All survey respondents were asked: “Have you been involved in creating a new media outlet since leaving the Los Angeles Times?” (Two individuals skipped the question.)
Twenty-eight percent of respondents reported starting at least one new media outlet since leaving the newspaper, most of which were multi-contributor platforms. Respondents identified 21 of the new multi-contributor sites by name, revealing a range of platforms from local investigative reporting and community journalism to sites dedicated to health reporting, entertainment news, business analysis, or satire. Other examples included a podcast, a website that crowdsourced reviews, an advocacy campaign site, and an online shopping platform.
Of the 19 initiatives confirmed up and running, six publish new original material at least weekly, if not daily or even multiple times per day. Four of these regular publishers identify as non-profit initiatives with mission statements in the public interest; five of them focus on political news, with three focused on a particular US state.
Some respondents who created new platforms since leaving the LA Times offered a critique of mainstream media in their survey answers. A co-founder of one of the political news sites wrote that the new site “attempt[s] to fill in for traditional media that has mostly walked away from this kind of coverage.” The new platforms appear to reflect differing perspectives on whether they simply fill the gaps left by declining newspapers or actually offer novel and better forms of journalism, particularly to the extent that they place an emphasis on investigative reporting and experiment with alternative funding models.
The results of this survey paint a picture of an industry that is messy — even messier than this researcher imagined when setting out to categorize what former LA Times journalists do now. Work across multiple jobs and fields is common for former newspaper journalists. We need to keep working to understand where journalists take their storytelling skills, not as an intellectual exercise but to learn how we can increase the opportunities available for them to produce types of information that still serve the public interest.
*This list of questions does not reflect the survey skip logic; some respondents only received some of these questions, depending on their answers to early questions.
- How old are you?
- What is your gender?
- What role(s) did you fill at the LA Times? (Select all that apply.)
- In what year did you leave the LA Times?
- Under what circumstances did you leave?
- What is your understanding of why you were laid off?
- What is your understanding of why you were offered a buyout?
- Are you currently working?
- Have you worked since leaving the LA Times?
- Are you looking to work again now or in the future?
- What area(s) do you work in now? (Select all that apply.)
- OPTIONAL If one of the following is your primary area of work, please select it here:
- What role(s) do you currently do in journalism? (Select all that apply.)
- What word(s) would you use to describe the publication(s) you work with? (Select all that apply.)
- OPTIONAL What journalistic company/organization/institution(s) do you work for/with?
- What are your main tasks in your current non-journalistic work? Please list at least THREE core responsibilities, but feel free to provide further detail.
- OPTIONAL What non-journalistic company/organization/institution(s) do you work for/with?
- In what (other) areas have you worked since leaving the LA Times? (Select all that apply.)
- OPTIONAL What other company/organization/institution(s) have you worked for (full-time, part-time, or as a frequent freelancer) since leaving the LA Times?
- In what ways have the journalism skills and knowledge you honed at the LA Times been useful in the work you’ve undertaken since leaving that newspaper?
- Have you been involved in creating a new media outlet since leaving the LA Times?
- OPTIONAL If so, what is the media outlet’s name?
- Would you like to continue working in or return to journalism?
- Thinking of the future, what career areas interest you most? (Select all that apply.)
- Any further comments on your current career situation?
- What do you think is the way forward for journalism?
This post has been updated to correct the number of newsroom employees at the LA Times before the Tribune Publishing Company’s 2008 bankruptcy filing.Cerianne Robertson is a PhD student in communication at USC-Annenberg where she studies the news media narratives, practices, and structures that sustain or disrupt power relations, especially in major urban centers.