What I’ve learned in nine months of covering the journalism crisis

When I began writing this newsletter, in June, I imagined the local journalism crisis as a graph with a simple line, rising and falling with each wave of cuts, marking how the world of news was getting worse or getting better. After nine months of reporting, I’ve realized it’s not that simple. It’s not just about what the numbers mean for those who were laid off or furloughed, but sometimes, how the newsroom that is left survives. A graph shows what is lost and gained, but not what it means to undergo such radical fluctuation and change. 

The journalism crisis isn’t easy to plot: it’s messy, varied, and in constant flux. In December of last year, Gabby Miller and I reported on the closure of fifty-five outlets and eight physical newsrooms, as well as on cutbacks at as many as two thousand outlets—many of them chain-owned—in 2020. The New York Times has estimated that thirty-seven thousand staffers at news companies have experienced layoffs, furloughs, or reductions in pay. These numbers are meaningful—if imperfect—because they can help us begin to wrap our minds around the magnitude of the crisis. But they’re only part of the story.

The crisis in journalism isn’t linear. Once-shuttered outlets begin publishing again. Managers rehire staff when they have the budget. Cutbacks may not always be permanent, but they can have lasting effects. The Chico News & Review—one in a group of three alternative weeklies based in California—halted print publication in March of 2020; in July, after an aggressive bout of fundraising, it announced plans to resume publishing one issue a month. The most recent print masthead lists twenty-seven names, down from the more than sixty listed in January of last year. When the St. Louis Riverfront Times’ margins were tightest, the publication dropped down from a staff of six to just one editor and one Web editor, who managed to keep the publication in print. When I spoke to editor Doyle Murphy in September, he’d been able to hire back three more staffers, bringing the writing staff up to four. “But it’s not six,” he said. “And even at a full staff, you always think, If I had one more writer… ” 

Keeping publications alive is good, but “alive” does not necessarily mean “thriving.” As I wrote in October, “emphasizing survival over dwindling capacity hurts the industry, and hurts the people who keep it alive.” Placing the current crisis in the context of the industry-wide attrition over the past decade, it’s also worthwhile to note that our pre-pandemic benchmarks for “success” are also likely wildly insufficient. This week, Jaeah Lee wrote for CJR about Nate Gartrell, an overworked reporter covering local courts and police misconduct in the Bay Area; on most days, Gartrell is the only reporter around the civil court clerk office. Last week, I spoke to Lisa Scagliotti, whose scrappy Vermont startup fills a news void but still doesn’t have a viable business model; when people ask her if the publication is sustainable, she tells them she’s not sure. Melissa Taboada, a longtime reporter at the Austin American-Statesman who took a buyout from Gannett, talked about the toll of shrinking margins when we spoke in November. “The workload just became greater and greater,” Taboada said. “If we can’t have more resources, then we need to adjust the way that we cover news.”

Corporations and managers can shave off costs while limiting bad press. Pay reductions or salary freezes can stave off “job loss” headlines, but at great cost to individuals and to their newsrooms. Hiring freezes go underreported. Other, less measurable budget cuts make the jobs of existing staffers much, much more difficult. Many “consolidations” amount to closures, allowing corporate owners to skate by with little public outcry. 

It’s important for journalism, as an industry, to pinpoint what we consider a “loss” and what we consider a “victory.” To do that, we need better questions and more specific language.

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The journalism crisis is not fleeting; it’s fundamental. We can’t settle for the standards of a year ago, or even five years ago. We need to consider how to measure “victories” and to consider whose victories they are. How do job cuts affect readers? Still-employed journalists? Management? How far do “reopenings” go, and what is lost in the process? What resources do small newsrooms have to challenge the status quo? How do “consolidations” reflect on corporate owners, as compared with the people who are doing the work on the ground? What’s survivable? What’s sustainable? And what was never good enough to begin with? As in most cases, the answers to these questions are about both the numbers and the people—and communities—behind them. 

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 nine 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:

  • NEW JERSEY NEWSPAPER GROUP GOES NONPROFIT: Fourteen New Jersey weeklies owned by the New Jersey Hills Media Group have collaborated with the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media to convert to nonprofit ownership, Editor & Publisher reported last week. The transition will make the New Jersey Hills Media Group the largest nonprofit weekly newspaper group in the country.
  • LOCAL NEWSPAPER COMPANY SUES TECH GIANTS: HD Media, owner of West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail and Huntington Herald-Dispatch, filed a federal antitrust lawsuit last week against Facebook and Google for cannibalizing advertising revenues, Editor & Publisher reported. “The freedom of the press is not at stake,” the suit says. “The press itself is at stake.”
  • REGRET IS NOT RESTITUTION: For CJR, Alexandria Neason wrote about the difference between newsroom apologies and atonement, underlining the role that newspapers play in writing and maintaining racist narratives in their communities. Tre’vell Anderson, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, talked to Neason about the importance of redistributing resources for equity. “Anyone who has worked in journalism during this era of gutted ad revenue knows how hard that can be, especially at local outlets, but there would be money found, Anderson said, if only people in positions of power were willing to make personal sacrifices—something to which the industry doesn’t yet seem committed,” Neason writes.
  • COMMUNITIES TURN TO NEXTDOOR FOR NEWS: For OneZero on Medium, Will Oremus wrote about the Nextdoor platform’s role in displacing local reporting. “Anecdotally, Nextdoor has gone from being kind of sub-Facebook to actually being the main platform you hear people discussing as a vector for local news and events and discussions,” Emily Bell, Tow Center director, told Oremus. Despite the prevalence of misinformation on the platform, Nextdoor has largely avoided the scrutiny other platforms, like Facebook and Google, have faced.
  • STOP BEGGING READERS FOR YOUR PAYCHECK: On Medium, Heather Bryant argued that managers, not readers, should be held responsible for journalists’ low wages. “If your newsroom is owned by a big company, dynastic family, hedge fund or your boss’s boss has millions, and you’re out here lobbying the general public, most of whom make as little or less than you do, that they need to part with some of their money so you can have a job while your boss’s bosses get to keep their millions and billions, please stop doing your boss’s dirty work for them,” Bryant writes.
  • SUPPORTING LOCAL NEWS GETS MORE DIFFICULT: Tina Hay, a news consumer living in Pennsylvania, wrote in last week’s Newstart Alliance newsletter about the increasing hindrances to subscribing to local news. Hay expresses frustration with declining coverage, delays in reporting, and inconsistent and negotiable subscription pricing. “My heart is with the local reporters, photographers, and editors, who earn little money and have even less job security,” Hay writes. “I’ll keep subscribing, in part to support them and in part because it’s just a hard habit to break. But it sure seems as though, with every renewal notice, my loyalty gets tested all over again.”
  • WORK FROM HOME CONTINUES: Publishers continue to push back estimates for when employees will return to physical newsrooms, Digiday reported. Outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters currently have plans to return to in-person work this summer, though many employees expect remote work to be extended beyond the projected dates as the pandemic drags on. While some employees have learned to favor working from home, others miss the productivity of the newsroom. Some have suggested that publishers should stop holding on to real estate and reallocate those resources.
  • MORE CUTBACKS, LAYOFFS: Yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer announced the sale of its printing plant, which will mean the loss of five hundred jobs, Kristen Hare reported for Poynter.

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 an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

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