Another brutal week for American journalism

Between January and May this year, approximately 3,000 people working in the news industry were laid off or offered a buyout. That’s according to figures compiled by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.—a Chicago-based firm that helps workers find new employment—and reported yesterday in a depressing article by Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith. The industry, Smith writes, is on course for its worst year jobs-wise since 2009. Back then, the Great Recession had hammered the economy across the board; now, with America’s unemployment rate at a 50-year low, journalism is a notable outlier. “In most industries, employers can’t find enough people to fill the jobs they have open,” Andrew Challenger, vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, tells Smith. “In news, it has been the opposite story. And it seems to have been accelerating.”

The decline of the media job market, especially in print, is nothing new. But 2019 has been particularly brutal. All job losses are not equal—layoffs are not buyouts are not firings—and different publications have their own specific problems beyond malign, industry-wide revenue trends. Nonetheless, by my rough, incomprehensive count, this year has seen: 200 layoffs at BuzzFeed; 250 layoffs at Vice; 800 layoffs at properties owned by Verizon, including HuffPost and Yahoo; more than 1,000 layoffs or buyout offers at newspapers owned by Gannett, McClatchy, and GateHouse; the loss of every staff writer at the East Bay Express, a California alt-weekly; at least 43 layoffs at the Dallas Morning News, 23 at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and 45 at The Penny Hoarder, a personal-finance publication in Florida; the loss of 16 full-time and 16 part-time/freelance positions at New York Media, owner of New York magazine; the firing of Ebony’s seven-person digital team; 11 business-side job losses at Quartz; and at least six job cuts at Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle, with 81 more threatened to follow.

ICYMI: The digital winter turns apocalyptic 

In January, as the mass layoffs at BuzzFeed, Verizon, and Gannett bit at the same time, I wrote that it had been “a brutal week for American journalism.” The week just gone has been less brutal, by the numbers; nonetheless, we’ve seen a further flurry of very bad media-job news. On Friday, First Look Media—which already, in March, cut its research team and shuttered The Intercept’s database of documents leaked by Edward Snowden—announced that it would be closing Topic, an online magazine, and defunding The Nib, a comics publication. The Nib will continue under the management of its editor, Matt Bors, but six of Topic’s nine digital-content staff will be laid off. (Three video staffers will stay with First Look.) “It’s an understatement to say that we’re bummed,” Anna Holmes, Topic’s editor, tweeted yesterday. Jelani Cobb, who was working on a project with Topic, asked Pierre Omidyar, First Look’s billionaire benefactor: “what is the standard for success?” Topic “just won two national magazine awards,” Cobb tweeted. “I remember Anna Holmes telling me she’s just the 3rd African American EIC to do this. And now… this? Really?”

Also Friday, management at The Vindicator, a newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, told staff that the paper will close in August as it has not been able to find a buyer. As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote yesterday, this is even more disturbing than your average story of local-news decline. Youngstown—a city of 65,000 people—will now not have a paper at all. And it’s scary that even private-equity-backed publishers wouldn’t touch The Vindicator: “The tricks they’ve been using—cut staff, outsource editing, outsource production, regionalize ad sales—apparently weren’t worth trying in Youngstown,” Benton writes. By his count, the paper has 24 journalists who will soon be looking for work. In all, 144 full-time jobs will be lost. Newspaper carriers will take the hit, too.

Jobs have been lost, too, in New Orleans, where the merger between two local papers—the Advocate and the Times-Picayune—took effect yesterday. When the Advocate acquired the Times-Picayune, all 161 of the latter paper’s employees were laid off. The Advocate said some of them would land at the new, merged title. Per Poynter’s Samantha Sunne, only around 22 staffers have transitioned over, 10 of whom are journalists. Of the Times-Picayune’s 55 remaining editorial employees, some rejected the Advocate’s offer, citing low pay; at least 19 have yet to find a new journalism job elsewhere; and six said they’re quitting the industry altogether to be able to stay in New Orleans.

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The 3,000 job-loss figure is already, sadly out of date. Smith’s Bloomberg article, nonetheless, is a shocking wake-up call. In May, two days after the Times-Picayune was sold, The Wall Street Journal dropped a comprehensive story zooming out on the dire state of the news industry. I wrote then that in “forcing us to step back and confront the bigger picture,” stories like the Journal’s “often land more forcefully than the daily accumulation of grim examples.” Smith’s does likewise.

ICYMI: BuzzFeed and the digital media meltdown

Below, more from a bad few days:

  • No news but fake news?: Will Bunch writes, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, that the loss of papers like The Vindicator will benefit Donald Trump in 2020: “It increases the likelihood [that readers will] be getting bad information—intentionally manipulated, and sometimes out-and-out fakery.”
  • A slow transition: Yesterday, Nieman Lab’s Benton noticed that links to old stories on the Times-Picayune’s website, NOLA.com, were broken. NOLA.com, now the website of the new merged paper, replied that “the transition of these links will take time—but it’s like moving to a new home. We’re carrying everything inside as fast as we can.”
  • CAP and trade: Last month, The Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick and Sam Stein reported that ThinkProgress, a progressive news site linked to the Center for American Progress, was “bleeding staff” as it struggled with declining traffic and finances. Now, Stein reports, CAP has put the site up for sale, citing industry-wide ad-revenue pressures as well as the increasingly “divergent missions” of ThinkProgress and CAP.
  • In better news: Smith notes that “the job instability in online media is one reason for the wave of unionizing across the landscape.” Yesterday, a union at Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by The New York Times Company, was recognized; it will now bargain with management for a contract. ICYMI, Anna Heyward explored the broader digital-unionization trend for CJR last year.


Other notable stories:

  • Early yesterday, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration may be prepared to offer North Korea a “nuclear freeze”—accepting the status quo in exchange for a moratorium on further nuclear development. John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national security adviser (who was tellingly absent from Trump’s brief visit to North Korea on Sunday), called the Times story “a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the president,” adding “there should be consequences.” The Times stood by its story; later, it reported, in a follow-up, that Bolton just pushed “an internal debate into the open.” ICYMI, I weighed the coverage of Trump’s North Korea visit in yesterday’s newsletter.
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram casts a skeptical eye over the DEEPFAKES Accountability Act, a bill that would ban internet users from creating and distributing content that has been manipulated to make it look like someone said/did something they didn’t say/do. (Yes, “DEEPFAKES” is an acronym here.) “Rushing forward with legislation aimed at correcting a problem before it even becomes obvious what the scope of the problem is—especially when that legislation has some obvious First Amendment issues—doesn’t seem wise,” Ingram writes.
  • For The Daily Beast, Alexander Heffner implores the press not to repeat the mistakes of 2016 in its coverage of Trump’s 2020 campaign. “It wasn’t Fox News that was the sole Trump propaganda network in 2016 fueling inflammatory anti-immigrant bigotry,” Heffner writes. “It was the chorus of news coverage, from network broadcasts to major newspapers, which parroted every faux Trump claim or outrage.” In recent interviews, Chuck Todd and George Stephanopoulos allowed Trump “to volley back and forth disinformation,” Heffner argues.
  • Last month, Texas introduced a little-noticed new law allowing state lawmakers to claim “legislative privilege” to conceal private communications, like emails, from the public, Lauren McGaughy reports for the Dallas Morning News. “The bill was passed ahead of the 2021 redistricting process, leading some to worry it was written specifically to help state lawmakers and legislative staffers responsible for redrawing the Texas’ political maps to hide their tracks” and thus protect the process against future judicial review.
  • Last year, after a gunman killed 10 people in a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston, The Wall Street Journal, Time, CNN, and the Austin American-Statesman interviewed David Briscoe, a substitute teacher who described his heroism during the attack. But Briscoe was never there; his story, The Texas Tribune’s Alex Samuels reports, was “an elaborate hoax.” All four outlets who quoted Briscoe removed the references from their stories after the Tribune reached out.
  • For Slate, Daniel Engber takes aim at media scaremongering about a supposed recent uptick in tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic. “The dozen deaths reported [last] month represent at most a tiny fraction—just a few percent—of all the ones that would be expected to occur in any year of US travel to the Dominican Republic,” Engber writes. “They do not compose a ‘trend,’ ‘spate,’ ‘string,’ ‘cluster,’ or any ‘mystery’ to speak of. They are, strictly speaking, from a news perspective, nothing.”
  • And for CJR’s new print issue on journalism around the world, Laura Thorne looks at the increased cross-pollination of reporting and comics. “Despite the immediacy of its impact, comics journalism is a slow form,” she writes. “It offers an antidote to the churn of the news cycle, inviting us to take a closer look at the pressing matters of our time.”

ICYMI: In Greece, the line between conservative journalism and political campaigns blurs

Update: This post has been updated to clarify the size of Youngstown, Ohio.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.