the research report

A Long View of Layoffs

A reason to worry less about the future of the newspaper industry

The present wave of cost- cutting, job-eliminating, and bureau-closing is just one reason journalism is widely believed to be an industry in crisis. But a pair of university studies concerning the profession’s past and future may slightly temper fears of its imminent demise.

At a glance, the news is indeed bad. A systematic, national survey of journalists, conducted by a team of Indiana University scholars led by David H. Weaver, shows that the total number of print and broadcast journalists fell from an estimated 122,000 to 116,000 between 1992 and 2002. That’s a real drop in journalists per 100,000 people from forty-eight to forty, with radio and daily newspapers accounting for the greatest losses. Few can doubt that the pace of decline has quickened over the past several years.

But take a longer view and the trend is significant growth. Adjusting for U.S. population growth, journalism’s flock has expanded 20 percent over three decades, comparing the 2002 figure to Weaver’s previous counts in 1992 and 1982–3, and a 1971 survey by the sociologist John Johnstone. (Absolute growth was 67 percent—from 70,000 journalists in 1971 to 116,000 in 2002.) Moreover, it’s unclear how much the downturn since 1992 is a worrisome hemorrhaging from the profession and how much is a shift in employment patterns. It is possible that members of more blighted sectors like radio and daily newspapers are reporting and writing for other media, including television, where the number of editorial employees nearly tripled between 1971 and 2002. Alternatively, print and radio refugees may have moved to online-only outlets or to freelancing, two increasingly important categories that do not appear in any of Weaver’s totals. His figures are limited to “traditional” journalists working full time for daily and weekly newspapers, radio and television stations, and wire services and newsmagazines. Internet journalists at exclusively Web-based outlets were excluded to allow comparisons with earlier studies. Bloggers were omitted because they are not full-time, paid employees.

For today’s journalists, the numbers offer some perspective. They are a reminder that recent job cuts follow dazzling growth in the 1970s, stability in the 1980s, and soft decline in the 1990s. Similarly, job satisfaction has also fluctuated over the decades. In the 2002 survey, the number of journalists who said they were “very satisfied” with their jobs bounced up to 33 percent, the first increase in twenty years, though well below the 49 percent who were “very satisfied” in 1971.

Such a historic perspective, of course, can scarcely console journalists being laid off in 2007. But fears that a new journalistic dark age looms should be further mitigated by a provocative paper by a University of Alabama professor, Wilson Lowrey, who situates bloggers alongside journalists as “occupational rivals” in the race for credible information and a loyal audience. Published in the November 2006 edition of Journalism, “Mapping the Journalism-Blogging Relationship” differentiates blogging and journalism along organizational lines of production: bloggers are individual workers, while traditional journalists contribute to larger systems. Their competitive relationship, he says, “could benefit audiences and society” by pressuring professional journalists to be more accurate and, in some cases, filling the need for information that either falls outside the bounds of traditional newsgathering or simply slips through cracks caused by downsizing. Unlike the for-profit news outlets on which they depend for original reporting, bloggers are relatively unencumbered by professional media’s overarching “need to attract large audiences and advertisers.” As a result, blogs are free to be specialized, complex, and partisan. They can also stay with stories longer and quote nonelite sources often ignored by their institutional counterparts.

Lowrey’s essay is a reminder that estimating the total number of journalists has become as much a matter of philosophical argument as of careful methodology.

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Michael Schudson & Tony Dokoupil write The Research Report for CJR.