The long tail of the journalism crisis

Since the onset of the pandemic, the demolition of the newsroom’s already trembling business model has become a familiar story for the journalism industry. For the Journalism Crisis Project, the Tow Center has been closely tracking cutbacks—the ways in which newsrooms have chosen to respond to the crisis—and the data tells a story, similar in theme from one struggling outlet to another, though different in respective approach. As covid-19 has pummeled one profit margin after the next, each suffering newsroom has made its own choices about how best to weather the storm: what to prioritize, what to communicate, what to surrender, and what to delay. In July, I wrote that pay cuts—a cost-cutting measure prevalent among outlets in the spring and early summer—were designed to be a temporary solution. But the pandemic is not a short-term emergency, and that becomes more evident by the day. 

According to the Tow Center’s data collection, the recent summer months have showed that newsroom cuts aren’t going away—while Tow tallied a comparatively small number of cutback reports in July and a smaller number in August than any other month since the pandemic started, many of the cutbacks signaled a second or third round of deeper cuts at outlets that had already tightened their belts. 

In April, Vox Media announced that it would furlough 9 percent of its staff for three months, beginning in May. In June, ten editorial staffers took buyouts at Vox Media sports publication SBNation. In July, Vox Media laid off 6 percent of its staff—seventy-two employees in all. CEO Jim Bankoff told CNN, “Our hope in May was that business would bounce back in the months that followed. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the second half of the year will not rebound anywhere near our pre-covid forecasts. Furthermore, as cases rise tragically across the country and many of our elected leaders avoid decisive action, we have very limited visibility into the timing or strength of a recovery.”

In May, the BBC implemented a hiring freeze and a pay freeze. In June, it made regional cuts amounting to the loss of hundreds of jobs. 

In April, the New York Post furloughed part-time staffers, froze hiring, and announced layoffs. In late July, the publication laid off 5 percent of its remaining staff. 

In April, Tribune Publishing cut salaries at the top, furloughed staff, and offered buyouts. In mid-August, the company shut down five of its newsroom offices, including the building formerly occupied by the New York Daily News

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Though Tow’s cutback tracker continues to mark the damage that has already been done, the crisis is far from over. Whether newsrooms decide to reimagine their relationships with their audiences, reconsider the benefits of government assistance, rebuild their economic structures to incorporate nonprofit models, or find other solutions, this crisis will require long-term imagination. Time has proved that the covid-19 pandemic is not a short-term emergency, and it’s going to require more than short-term solutions. 

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). 

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.)

ATTEND OUR SYMPOSIUM: Join us on September 15 and 16 for a series of online conversations aimed at fostering fresh thinking about the media—considering how to rebuild the news industry after this season of loss. We’ll hear from some of the most urgent voices in the profession to talk about where journalism goes next. You can register here.

Below, more on changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • COLLABORATION OVER COMPETITION: This week for CJR, Corey Hutchins writes about the Colorado News Collaborative, a coalition of nearly a hundred journalists from more than sixty Colorado news organizations that share resources in what he calls the news ecosystem’s “dramatic third act,” as old rivals team up. Last week, Maria Bustillos introduced the Brick House—a media cooperative consisting of independent publications that will pool and share subscribers, revenues, and expenses. “A community of journalists looking out for each other, committed to the strength and vigor of the profession before their own individual careers, will be stronger in every way—better at producing stories that matter, better in business, better at serving the public,” Bustillos writes.
  • FACEBOOK THREATENS TO BLOCK NEWS: On Monday, in response to an Australian bill that proposes requiring Facebook and Google to pay news publishers for use of their articles, Facebook warned that it will cease publishing Australian news content if the bill is signed into law, the New York Times reported. “I can assure you that not only regulators but media companies around the world and the digital platforms are watching Australia closely,” News Corp CEO Robert Thomson told the Times.
  • PUBLIC TRUST CAN IMPROVE: A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of US adults believe news organizations could do a better job of explaining their financial situation to their readers. The poll also found that the majority of those surveyed believe that some skepticism toward the media is healthy and that while a majority desire a personal connection with a news outlet, more than half indicated that they do not feel valued or understood by their news providers.
  • SHORT-TERM THINKING GOVERNS ADVERTISING: The pandemic has forced many publishers to rely on short-term thinking in their advertising relationships and strategies, Max Willens writes for Digiday. Though broadcasters and magazine publishers in particular are accustomed to selling advertising space months in advance, economic instability and unpredictable consumer response have led many publications to look for insights more frequently, shorten cancellation windows in contracts, and reimagine marketing strategies for the immediate future over the distant.
  • NEWSLETTERS BUILD AUDIENCES: The American Press Institute’s Better News resource interviewed Newsday in a Q&A about how the outlet uses its targeted newsletters to drive subscriptions. And for Digiday, Kayleigh Barber writes about the rise of educational newsletters—like the Wall Street Journal’s newly launched personal finance course, the Six-Week Money Challenge, which reaches its students via weekly email blast. Dan Oshinsky, from Inbox Collective, told Barber that educational newsletters can aid publications by “building new audiences, deepening existing subscriber relationships, earning new sponsorship revenue by selling to topic-specific advertisers and extending out affiliate businesses by incorporating product recommendations,” though each publication approaches the form differently.
  • NEWSLETTERS GENERATE INCOME: For New York magazine, James D. Walsh writes about “the newsletter economy,” in which writers have struck out on their own to write subscription-driven newsletters. “The question may no longer be whether readers are willing to pay for hyper-focused newsletters, but how many are willing to do so,” Walsh writes. “Substack CEO Chris Best thinks the appetite is great.”
  • UK LOCAL NEWS PUBLISHER SOLD TO PRIVATE EQUITY: The Press Gazette reported that the United Kingdom’s fourth-largest local news publisher, Archant, has been bought out by a private equity firm—a move all too familiar in the recent landscape for local journalism in the US, though the British company’s chief executive credits the coronavirus pandemic with dealing the final blow. Rcapital Partners will have a 90 percent stake in the company, Freddy Mayhew reports.
  • CALIFORNIA RADIO STATIONS ASK FOR SUPPORT: Last week, thirteen public radio stations in California united for an awareness campaign and fundraising initiative in support of public media in the state. “Public radio is not beholden to stockholders or corporate interests; it is accountable to the people,” the group said in a statement. “But without the support of our listeners, we could be at great risk.” The campaign united under the hashtag #californiapublicradioday.
  • ATLANTIC CITY CENTERS THE COMMUNITY: Last week, I wrote that community-centered journalism is both an end in itself and an important means to survival for the local news industry. On the Gather platform, Madeleine Feldman published a brief case study about Stories of Atlantic City, a community-centered journalism initiative based in southeastern New Jersey. Feldman explores where the project was most effective and where it fell short, by its standards.  
  • ONLINE EVENTS ENGAGE AUDIENCES IN NEW WAYS: As the pandemic has forced events online, news outlets have been handed a new medium for engaging audiences, Jacqui Park writes for The Story, on Medium. Publications can use virtual events to promote and dig deeper into journalistic work, to make connections across stories, to build relationships with the community, and to involve more participants at a lower cost, Park says.
  • MORE LAYOFFS: Puerto Rican company GFR Media announced a reorganization that eliminated eighty-five jobs. And Bleacher Report laid off at least ten people, according to the Awful Announcing sports blog

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 (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. And the International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education

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Lauren Harris is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites