Business of News

The journalism crisis is about people

October 22, 2020

As the journalism industry continues to decline, it’s vital to underline the effects on democratic participation, on community engagement, and on public health systems. But journalism isn’t only for people; it’s also by people. And many of those people are struggling. 

As a joint survey conducted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the International Center for Journalists recently indicated, the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with failing economic models and political conflagration, has had dire effects on the working conditions and well being of journalists. “Their environment is painfully difficult, marked by a startling amount of psychological and financial pressure,” Emily Bell, Julie Posetti, and Peter Brown wrote last week for CJR. “In sum, our survey paints a picture of a profession absorbed in essential work amid a decreased sense of security and an overwhelming amount of mis- and disinformation that the dominant technology platforms have failed to confront.” Six percent of those surveyed by Tow and ICFJ—during the first wave of the pandemic—reported closures at their newsrooms, some temporary, some permanent. Twenty-one percent reported that their salaries had been cut. Six percent experienced furloughs; six percent were laid off.

For those reporters now unemployed, job prospects are grim. According to a September report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, while employment across all occupations is projected to grow by four percent over the next ten years, employment in journalism is projected to decline by eleven percent. The crisis is not going away.

At the company level, there have been indications that newsrooms are finding ways to weather the storm. Condé Nast reversed their spring pay cuts (they laid off 100 staffers in May). The Atlantic, one year into the implementation of a paywall, has 650,000 subscribers (they laid off 68 staffers, also in May). Some advertisers are even courting local newsrooms. It’s easy to cheer for the restoration of salaries or an increase in subscription numbers—but, zooming out further, it’s difficult to celebrate the continuation of hundreds of newsrooms operating at a reduced capacity indefinitely. The improving financial health of individual publications is a victory, but it’s not enough to counteract the deteriorating financial situations of its former employees, who find themselves staring into a dismal abyss of a job market. 

The crisis has been happening for years. Like a frog boiled slowly, we’ve allowed ourselves to adjust to the calamity, again and again. But emphasizing survival over dwindling capacity hurts the industry, and hurts the people who keep it alive. Solutions, so far, are unsustainable. And while the chatter of the still-employed tends to keep the market at the forefront of conversations about the crisis, it’s crucial to keep the human toll top-of-mind. 

The Journalism Crisis Project has set its sights on finding and elevating possible solutions to the challenges that face the press in 2020. But in a year of unprecedented attrition rates, any solution to the crisis facing the journalism industry must necessarily account for the people working in it—and those who aren’t working in it any longer.

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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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past six 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.)

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

  • LOCAL JOURNALIST FIRED AFTER SPEAKING OUT: Ashley Spinks was fired from her job at the Floyd Press in Virginia after speaking critically about Lee Enterprises, the paper’s owner, in an interview with Virginia Public Radio Station WVTF. In a Q&A with The Washingtonian, Spinks said, “I think everyone who works at a community newspaper kind of feels like they have the Sword of Damocles over their head; we’re all kind of anticipating that, at some point or another, we’ll be laid off, we’ll be fired, our position will be eliminated—because we’ve seen it happen to so many colleagues. It’s not that the firing in and of itself that was so unexpected, but it was just the circumstances of it.”

  • GANNETT WILL OFFER BUYOUTS AGAIN: Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the US, will begin another round of buyouts this week, Rick Edmonds reported for Poynter. This action follows rotating furloughs, temporary pay reductions, and suspensions of 401(k) contributions following the outbreak of the pandemic. “Several other large chains quickly adopted variations on Gannett’s plan, and my guess is that the follow-the-leader dynamic will be repeated now,” Edmonds writes.

  • LOCAL REPORTERS PUSH BACK AGAINST HEDGE FUND: For NiemanLab, Dan Kennedy wrote about a number of local journalists who have left their traditional newsrooms to start their own newsrooms and reporting projects, in an effort to fight back against owner Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has continued to tighten its grip over local newsrooms and to implement widespread cutbacks. (In June, Savannah Jacobson wrote a deep dive into Alden and its owner, Randall Smith, for CJR.)

  • TEXAS PAPERS MOVE TOWARD UNIONIZATION: Journalists at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced a union drive, theFort Worth Business Press reported last week. The Dallas Morning News and Al Día announced last week that journalists at both publications had voted to unionize. And Bustle Digital Group is also organizing.

  • THE JOURNALISM CRISIS IS NOT OVER: For Vanity Fair, Joe Pompeo wrote about the growing third wave of COVID infections and their likely implications for the beleaguered news industry. This spring and summer, Pompeo writes, “downsized media companies recovered from the immediate fallout and adjusted, as they always do, to diminished budgets and business prospects and head counts.” He points to the recent closure of California Sunday Magazine and the sale of Quartz as bad omens—two formerly thriving companies have been hobbled by the perils of the news business in 2020. “Don’t be surprised if you see that hammer come down yet again,” Pompeo writes. (ICYMI, I wrote in September about the long tail of the journalism crisis.)

  • SACRAMENTO BEE GUILD PROTESTS PAY-FOR-CLICKS: This week, the Sacramento Bee News Guild claimed on Twitter that new McClatchy CEO Tony Hunter has proposed a pay-for-clicks structure, tying individual employee compensation to article clicks, a move that the guild says “encourages controversy and quantity over clarity and quality.” The guild is also circulating a petition against the measure, writing “Journalism that serves the community takes time and care. Countless interviews. Late-night meetings. Stacks of records. The pursuit of clicks is something different.” Highlighting a different approach to defining “valuable” content, What’s New in Publishing wrote about Sophi—an artificial intelligence tool that The Globe and Mail uses to measure articles’ value by how each drives subscriptions and subscription retention.

  • APPLE NEWS GETS CLICKS, NOT CASH: For the Press Gazette, William Turvill wrote about Apple as a publishing platform. “It’s particularly good at driving traffic and particularly bad at driving money,” David Chavern, chief executive of the News Media Alliance, told Turvill. Chavern’s sentiment sums up the bottom line of the piece, but Turvill digs a bit more deeply into the pros and cons of Apple News as a tool for publishers, noting that while the majority of publishers use the platform, some may be leaning toward cutting ties.

  • THE GOVERNMENT TAKES ON GOOGLE: For CJR, Mathew Ingram explored the government’s landmark antitrust case against Google. But it’s complicated. If the case is continued after the election, ”the government has to either convince the courts to ignore several decades of judicial precedent, or come up with a novel definition of consumer harm that covers what Google does,” Ingram writes. Whether it’s a victory, a political ploy, or a likely failure—the case is a big step.

  • SOME PRINT SALES REBOUND IN THE UK: Print sales at UK newspaper The Daily Mail have surpassed one million copies for the first time since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March, the Press Gazette reported. The Gazette reported a year-on-year sales decline at every publication for which it had figures, with declines surpassing 20 percent at publications like the Financial Post and Sunday Times.

  • MEETING NEEDS AND AMPLIFYING COMMUNITY VOICES: When El Tímpano, an Oakland-based local reporting lab, first launched in 2018, their primary goal was to prioritize the information needs of community members—spending months searching for answers to the question “What do people in our community need to know?” Amid a pandemic, however, as many social safety nets fail and limited public health information too often falls short, El Tímpano wrote about the importance of a cyclical listening process. “While El Tímpano often has at our fingertips the information our audience needs to know, other times it is our audience that wields the questions our journalists need to ask, or the insights, expertise, and stories that the wider community needs to hear,” director Madeleine Bair writes.

  • CITY CAST WILL CREATE A LOCALIZED NETWORK FOR PODCASTS: David Plotz, the former EIC of Slate and former CEO of Atlas Obscura is launching a for-profit localized daily podcast network called CityCast. “It will combine essential local news with smart, delightful perspective about your community. It will be the passionate, curious, connecting voice of your city and mine,” Plotz writes, on Medium. “I’m starting City Cast because I believe the future is local.”

  • HOW THE CORRESPONDENT ENGAGES WITH MEMBERS: Writers at The Correspondent are encouraged to spend a significant percentage of their time interacting with readers to drive member engagement, Digiday reported. The site’s five full-time journalists each have their own newsletter, and comment sections—which are available to members—are intended to be a place where readers can ask questions and contribute their own expertise and knowledge. “For all of its inclusive and liberal ideals, the comments on topics around politics and racism still get quite heated, although like other news media, only 2% of members leave comments (roughly 1,000 people),” Lucinda Southern writes.

  • RE-CONSIDERING WESTERN NARRATIVE: Denver-based magazine 5280 asks whether non-profit magazine High Country News can “rewrite the narrative of the West,” in the aftermath of the editor in chief’s resignation. In a recent tweet thread, former EIC Brian Calvert warned of “a two-sided prophecy for the magazine: High Country News will either help uphold white supremacy, or it will help to undermine it,” Haley Gray writes. Because of the paper’s nonprofit status, it depends on the support of readers and donors—with the potential to tip the scales on what narratives and perspectives are emphasized—but Calvert believes it’s crucial for the publication to interrogate and broaden the lens, broadening the audience in the process.

  • MORE LAYOFFS: The Hartford Courant has outsourced printing, eliminating 151 jobs, the AP reported. The Philadelphia Inquirer has announced that it will lay off five staffers. The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has discontinued its print edition

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 The Lenfest Institute has begun the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network, which offers training and support for news publishers of many sizes and business models.

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