Business of News

The journalism crisis is gaining momentum

June 17, 2020

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:

JOURNALISM JOBS: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it hereYesterday, 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.

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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