As more and more newspapers close, and others cut staff to the point where they cannot be effective at the examination and reporting of local events and politics, the industry’s nosedive has worsened. Newspaper newsrooms lost 47% of their workforces from 2008 to 2018, a blow that is hard to imagine.
A new report from the Pew Research Center remarks that across all media, newsroom employment dropped 25% over the same period. In 2008, the total figure was 118,000 (reporters, editors, photographers and videographers) across five segments (newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services”). The report noted that “By 2018, that number had declined to about 86,000, a loss of about 28,000 jobs.” The drop was driven almost completely by newspapers, at which employment dropped from 71,000 workers to 38,000.
The magnitude of the loss for newspapers was illustrated by what seems to be a small incident in the recent history of local media. The Vindicator of Youngtown, Ohio, will close at the end of August. It has survived, and flourished at times, for 150 years. The Washington Post, one of the few large successful dailies in America, commented, “‘Democracy . . . is about to die in Youngstown’ with closing of the local newspaper.”
Based on layoffs at other papers this year, both those owned by large chains and those that are independent, there is little hope that the drop in newspaper newsroom employment will not continue. Even the largest chains, like McClatchy, are still downsizing. Among the 24 industries dying in America, it is hard to find another in worse shape.
Two classes of newspapers are doing better than most, and in some cases much better. The first are properties like The New York Times, which has over 3.5 million people who pay for the paper or related products online. Its goal is for this figure to hit 10 million by 2025. The Times has kept its newsroom operations at about 1,300 people. That allows it to produce the kind of journalism readers are highly likely to pay for. The Wall Street Journal has a similar advantage. So does the Washington Post, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, which has a healthy digital subscriber base.
The other fortunate newspapers are those owned by the very rich or associated with well-funded nonprofits. These include the dailies in Boston, Tampa, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. They have not been immune from layoffs, but the damage is less than that at papers with less well-financed owners.
These two successful classes are a tiny fraction of the newspaper industry overall. Management at the papers without resource advantages continue to cut. The Pew yardstick will measure an even smaller group of employees next year. Not a single executive at a company that runs large and medium-sized dailies has come up with a successful strategy to stop the slide. No American industry has fallen apart quite as badly in recent decades, with the possible exception of heavy manufacturing. Although there are worse jobs in American than being a newspaper reporter, the number can be counted on one hand.
Geographic areas without local news coverage available have become known as “news deserts.” A map of the United States shows that large parts of the country are located in these areas. And the map is growing quickly.