Business of News

The local news crisis is a labor story

April 28, 2021

As the pandemic spread across the world last year, newsrooms worldwide took a hit, as furloughs, layoffs, salary freezes, print reductions, outsourcing, consolidations, and closures accelerated across an already-beleaguered industry. Last week, Axios reported that 2020 yielded a record number of unionization efforts in US newsrooms, a trend that has been intensifying for years. Even as the economic crisis as exacerbated by COVID shows signs of slowing, the union movement is trending in the opposite direction. “It’s going to explode,” Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, told Sara Fischer. “This will be a record year for unionization in the industry.”

The unionization trend itself may be a healthy sign of welcome change. With an industry that has been facing decline for years—much at low-level staffers’ expense—it’s evident that the story of local journalism over the past year is, in large part, a labor story. As the news industry takes stock and tries to regain footing, it’s important to consider what has been gained, what has been lost, and who holds the power, moving forward. 

In March of 2020, Brooke Hauser, the editor in chief of the Daily Hampshire Gazette—a Massachusetts paper owned by Newspapers of New England—announced that “several talented staffers” would be laid off “as a result of the pandemic and declining revenue” (the Tow Center’s cutback tracker reports thirteen chain-wide layoffs in March). “We all hope it’s a temporary state and that we can bring back as many people as possible in the near future,” Hauser wrote. In June, the Gazette’s parent company announced the closure of their Northampton printing press, leading to job losses for more than twenty print employees. In July, The Shoestring reported that the Gazette’s union—formed in 2018—was fighting to stop the outsourcing of print jobs to Gannett. They lost the fight; as a result, their union membership was cut in half amid contract negotiations. In December, Hauser was laid off, alongside as many as seven other Gazette employees losing their jobs or taking buyouts. 

Similar stories echo across the local news landscape. In March of 2020, Gannett—the largest newspaper chain in the country—implemented widespread furloughs; in October, they announced voluntary buyouts, which six hundred employees took. Melissa Taboada, a reporter at the Austin American-Statesman for twenty years, was one of the Gannett staffers to choose a buyout. “If we can’t have more resources, then we need to adjust the way that we cover news,” Taboada told me in November; three months later, the American-Statesman voted 36-12 in favor of a union. More than forty Gannett papers have unionized in the past year, Axios reported, and over the past three years, “nearly every” Tribune-owned newspaper has unionized. (In February of this year, the New Jersey Globe reported that three local Gannett-owned newspapers had failed to cover a unionization bid by their own reporters.)

Yesterday, the NewsGuild published a report on pay equity across fourteen Gannett newsrooms belonging to the union. The report found that—with the exception of one newsroom studied—newsrooms were predominantly white and “less racially diverse than the communities they serve.” In median salaries, women earned almost $10,000 less than their male counterparts, and women of color around $15,700 less. (A Gannett spokesperson said they “strongly disagree with the [study’s] methodology and its findings.”) The pay gap is smaller among those newsrooms that have longstanding union contracts, Gabby Miller noted yesterday for CJR. 

Even as the economic situation improves across some newsrooms, union contracts are calls for accountability and transparency in both local and national newsrooms. In April of 2020, the Dallas Morning News implemented pay cuts, restoring salaries for some in August and returning pay to pre-pandemic levels for all but top executives by October, when journalists at the Morning News and Al Día won the right to negotiate together for a contract. This week, Digiday reported that Insider’s union was pushing back against a metrics evaluation system that awards “impact points” for different types of engagement; “changes are likely coming for a system that some writers found so stressful it prompted them to quit,” Kayleigh Barber wrote. 

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It’s been a bad decade and a horrific year for the people who sustain journalism, particularly at the local level. It’s not enough to ensure that people have access to news; it’s just as important to ensure fair and equitable labor standards for the people who produce it. 

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 year, 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.)

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • ALDEN MISMANAGED PENSIONS: Alden Global Capital—which currently stands in the lead to takeover Tribune Publishing—mismanaged employee pensions by putting pension savings into its own funds, The Washington Post reported. “Although Alden admitted no wrongdoing and received no penalties, the Labor Department’s decision detailed a series of changes made in response to the agency’s investigation,” Jonathan O’Connell writes.
  • ON THE POWER OF THE NEWSROOM: Defector wrote about the Oscar-nominated documentary Collective, which follows the story of a group of journalists in Romania reporting on a fire at a Bucharest nightclub. Considering the teamwork of the reporters in the film, Soraya Roberts draws a line to All the President’s Men, another film about a newsroom working collectively to hold people accountable for their actions and failures. Woodward and Bernstein were never alone in their efforts, Roberts writes. “Even when they are on their own, the machine of The Washington Post is chugging in the background, funding their search, providing editorial support, answering their questions.” Today, Roberts argues, tech platforms that have hollowed out once robust newsrooms are offering individual journalists access to publishing power without the support of an institution and a team. (Elsewhere, for Poynter, Kristen Hare considers new options for in-person journalism work: what about coffee shops? Public libraries? Universities? Rental spaces?)
  • RADIO STATIONS COLLABORATE: The Mountain West News Bureau, a consortium of NPR stations, has made stories available to small community radio stations and local newspapers amid the pandemic, NiemanLab reported. Because of limited reach and easy access, “radio is uniquely positioned to fill in local news gaps,” Rachel del Valle writes. “And when shared on digital platforms, stories can go beyond individual communities and into larger regional and national conversations.”
  • PRINT CIRCULATION HAS FALLEN ACROSS THE UK: The country’s first lockdown had a steep effect on national newspapers in the UK, the PressGazette reported, particularly among titles popular with commuters. Many publications have been slow to recover. “Paid-for national newspaper circulations have fallen by almost a fifth (18%) on average since just before the first Covid-19 lockdown,” Charlotte Tobitt and Aisha Majid write.
  • GUARDIAN RETURNS SOME GOVERNMENT AID: Having experienced a measure of financial recovery after the COVID crisis, the Guardian Media Group will return ÂŁ1.6million of pandemic aid, The Guardian reported of its parent company.
  • LOCAL OUTLET OFFERS UP SPEAKERS TO COMMUNITY: The Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit investigative outlet in North Carolina, has launched a speakers’ bureau, offering journalists with knowledge and expertise as speakers for both virtual and in-person events. “The launch of this new program adds another layer to fulfilling our mission to bring critical information to the people of North Carolina,”Angie Newsome, the publication’s founder and executive director, writes.
  • STRUGGLING IOWA NEWSPAPER BREAKS EVEN: The Storm Lake Times, a local paper in Western Iowa, reported in March that the paper had broken even after months of significant financial setbacks due to the loss in advertising revenue amid the pandemic. Though circulation has been increasing for a year, March saw a digital subscription increase of around seventy percent, editor Art Cullen reported. “We appealed to readers and they responded,” Cullen writes. “The trend held through April, and we pray it will going forward. Thank you. It makes me blow my nose.” (Cullen’s newspaper is one of those the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation hopes to support; I spoke with them about their hopes and goals in April).
  • CALLS FOR FEEDBACK: NiemanLab wants to know about the last news subscription you cancelled and why you cancelled it. And if you’re a rural community news publisher WVU NewStart fellow Tony Baranowski is looking for your input for a trends survey.

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Poynter has put together a list of places to search for journalism jobs and internships. 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.


Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.