The journalism industry has been facing a crisis for years; the COVID-19 pandemic has simply accelerated the inevitable, swelling a steady and dispiriting trickle of localized layoffs and outlet consolidations to a national deluge of pay cuts, furloughs, mass layoffs, closures, print reductions. These cutbacks threaten individual journalists and also journalism as a whole, eroding the robust coverage that is essential to a functioning democracy. As the traditional commercial foundations of journalism give way beneath our feet, The Columbia Journalism Review is partnering with The Tow Center for Digital Journalism to launch the Journalism Crisis Project, joining ranks in an attempt to document and bear witness to losses and fundamental changes in newsrooms all over the world. As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center, and Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, wrote in their introduction to the project, “Now, we may have finally arrived at a moment of reckoning with the problem.”
Our goals are two-fold—we want to acknowledge what is lost, and to systematically document the crisis with an eye toward the future. How are newsrooms changing? At what rate? What patterns arise when we measure these changes against geographical location or business model? The urgency of such questions intensifies as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the industry, accelerating the collapse of advertising revenue and testing the sustainability of reader-driven revenues. In order to catalogue this moment and provide resources for further research, The Tow Center is building a database that tracks newsroom cutbacks by type, date, outlet, location, ownership, and other variables. In tandem with this work, CJR will publish a weekly newsletter to focus on the unfolding crisis and to consider how newsrooms are adjusting to a new world. We hope you find it useful, and we invite you to follow along (to continue to receive weekly emails from the Journalism Crisis Project, subscribe here).
In our first of several webinars for the Journalism Crisis Project, CJR and the Tow Center invited panelists to discuss how best to document this crisis, and why such documentation is essential. Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, has been publishing and maintaining a news desert map since 2016—evidence that the crisis began long before the pandemic. Sarah Stonbely, Research Director at the Center for Cooperative Media, worked with teammates to create a map of New Jersey’s local news providers drawn by coverage area. Both Abernathy and Stonbely noted that low-income communities—many with high populations of people of color—tend to be the first to lose their local newspaper coverage. The current crisis has only exacerbated this disparity. “As advertising dollars have largely gone away, people are pushing the pivot to reader revenue really hard,” Stonbely said. “if you’re in a community that doesn’t have revenue to begin with or who has lost their jobs, or have been sick at a higher rate, that’s really tough.” Still, there’s an opportunity to be examined: Kristen Hare, who has been regularly tallying layoffs for Poynter, noted that while many newsrooms have lost revenue, many have also received increased attention as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak. “What behaviors have to change for newsrooms?” Hare asked. “How do they reintroduce themselves to these people who counted on them for a crisis?”
Though many of these projects and databases are currently focused on tracking outlets in the United States, the Tow Center hopes to expand the database to reflect global circumstances. As our panelists discussed in our second Journalism Crisis webinar, COVID-19 has affected news markets the world over, though each in a manner unique to the region’s particular industry standards and political and economic realities. Ritu Kapur, Co-Founder and CEO of Quintillion Media in India, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing threats to press freedom by stripping newsrooms of necessary resources and protections. Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, journalist and co-founder of the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana, reported closures of mainstream long-standing newspapers in South Africa and local-language outlets in Uganda.
With one eye on the crumbling present, we also look to the future; what are the sustainable funding models that will allow us to reimagine the press and better serve communities? In our third webinar, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Editorial Director at the Texas Tribune, Farai Chideya, Program Officer at Creativity and Free Expression in Journalism at The Ford Foundation, Jeanne Straus, President & Publisher at Straus News and Tasneem Raja, Editor in Chief at The Oaklandside, joined us to talk about the future of local news. Straus discussed the recent emphasis on collaboration across newsrooms, sending a single reporter to a press conference and sharing the coverage. Ishmael described re-imagining Tribune events to meet audience needs online. “Once, journalism was viewed as very practical,” Chideya added. “Now anything practical is pandering. But people need practical information. Look at innovative leadership, like City Bureau with their Documenters project, where they’re paying citizens to train as citizen journalists and record town hall meetings.” Raja similarly emphasized the importance of practical partnership before and during the launch of The Oaklandside—asking local Oaklanders about their information needs. “We actually don’t use the word ‘news’ very often,” Raja said. As Chideya concluded, “The architecture of journalism is changing.”
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on that very change and its rapid acceleration in this moment; to grapple with the current crisis and consider what we might build later. We hope you’ll join us.
- 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 securely by the Tow Center and will not be shared).
Below, more on COVID-19 and shifting trends in journalism:
- HOW TO PAY FOR JOURNALISM: For CJR last week, Alissa Quart, Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, wrote about the necessity of supporting journalists in a time of crisis and beyond. “We are used to thinking we are not the story—that we are creative class ‘non-essential workers’ and, thus, that there are other, more worthy industries that deserve support,” Quart wrote. On the contrary, Quart believes “journalism is essential, like rain.” She points to the 1935 Federal Writer’s Project—a New Deal program that supported 6,600 writers, editors, and researchers over the course of eight years—as one possible model for intervention. (ICYMI, Quart’s organization put together a $100,000 COVID relief fund for journalists who have been affected by the pandemic, physically or economically).
- RISING SUBSCRIPTIONS, FALLING REVENUES: As Lucinda Southern wrote yesterday for Digiday, subscriptions are up in many newsrooms, even while revenues fall. For CJR, James Ball addressed the oft-mentioned solution of “micropayments,” listing the reasons that a pay-per-article model is unlikely to take off in newsrooms: the model is unattractive to advertisers, disaggregates valuable story packages, and forces readers to invest money in a product without first knowing its value. “Readers would like to pick the very best content and pay less for it than they would if they subscribed,” Ball writes. “But no organization—media company, television network, or record company—can produce only hits. Nor should they try.“
- THE STATE OF DIGITAL NEWS: This week, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released their 2020 Digital News Report, with findings about digital news consumption in forty countries across four continents.
- THIS IS NOT THE END: The U.K.’s Press Gazette spoke to researchers and writers at the Reuters Institute and Ender’s Analysis who concluded that the current economic crisis in journalism is “not an extinction-level event,” but rather “a catalyst for change.” “I think we will see more money coming from platforms and other routes to try and support journalism that’s not commercially sustainable, but is still important democratically,” Nic Newman, from the Reuters Institute said. In 2017, Emily Bell wrote for CJR that tech companies should create a collective endowment to fund journalism, relinquishing control over its management. In 2019, James Ball wrote that No, tech companies shouldn’t fund journalism. Bell wrote for Slate that same year that Facebook and Google Can’t Save the Local News Crisis. In our third and most recent webinar, on the future of local news, Tasneem Raja, EIC of The Oaklandside, said “Let’s have this conversation about who is stepping up to invest, but please let’s also acknowledge that the work the work needs to be done.”
- SUPPORT LOCAL, GOOGLE SAYS: Last week, Kristen Hare reported for Poynter that Google has launched an ad campaign in support of local news, investing $15 million. “Google did not say how much each newsroom was getting with the ad buy,” Hare noted on Twitter, concluding that “this is an awareness campaign and not a saving jobs campaign.”
- OUT OF OFFICE: Poynter and NiemanLab both reported last week that seven McClatchy offices—the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer, The State, The Modesto Bee, The Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune, and a D.C. bureau—would cancel their leases for the year, leaving employees to work remotely until at least 2021. While many outlets are still working remotely due to coronavirus concerns, this marks a more fundamental and long-term shift away from the traditional newsroom model, at least for the time being. Sherry Chisenhall, executive editor at the Charlotte Observer, wrote that “the pandemic has deeply impacted our business, as it has many others. Revenue has fallen, and a timeline of recovery is uncertain. The move from uptown offices helps ensure that we can keep local journalists on the job.”
- MORE LAYOFFS, CLOSURES: The Honolulu Star-Observer announced on Friday that it had cut twenty-nine members of its newsroom staff. Minnesota Public Radio cut twenty-eight jobs, Bring Me the News reported this week, and Chicago public radio station WBEZ cut twelve, according to media reporter Robert Feder. Gannett closed two papers in McAllen, Texas—the Edinburg Review and Valley-town Crier; the Rio Grande Guardian, reporting on the closures, quoted local journalism professor Dr. Gregory Selber saying that “while a loss of advertising revenue caused by the coronavirus was likely the ‘tipping point,’ the Edinburg Review and Valley Town Crier were probably based on ‘a doomed model’ to begin with.”
- THE LAYOFF CYCLE: For GEN on Medium, Clio Chang wrote about “The Generation Shaped by Layoffs,” noting that many young workers in a variety of industries are familiar with layoffs, due to rocky economic conditions and struggling systems that deprive young people of agency in planning and maintaining their careers. “Like the people I interviewed, layoffs — and the labor organizing work around them — allowed me to acutely understand over time that my career wasn’t shaped by the quality of my work, but rather the quality of the systems that we lived under,” Chang wrote. This reality, she argues, exacerbates pre-existing inequalities and leaves many young workers economically unstable, struggling to advance their careers.
JOURNALISM JOBS: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. Yesterday, Study Hall and Deez Links announced their launch of media classified ads, and Study Hall tweeted that 125 jobs and freelance opportunities are available on their jobs digest page.