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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute

This section has been updated with new ASNE numbers as of 4/28/2008

The list of newspapers cutting staff and reducing newsholes has grown steadily for the last four years. Heading into an increasingly difficult 2008, the question is not so much who is cutting as who, if anyone, is not.

Early in 2007, the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, the Columbus Dispatch and the Ann Arbor News were first of the year to announce buyout plans. In mid-February, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution offered buyouts to 80 senior newsroom employees. Nearly 50 accepted and 17 more left voluntarily in the course of the year and were not replaced.

The biggest buyout of the year was yet to come, at the San Francisco Chronicle. There, 100 news employees – a quarter of the staff remaining after earlier cutbacks – departed over the summer, including managing editor Robert Rosenthal.1 Editor Phil Bronstein left day-to-day operations for a Hearst corporate job in early 2008.

The year closed with USA Today announcing its intention to trim 45 newsroom jobs, or 9% of the staff.2

January 2008 opened with another wave of announced cuts, many of them the result of budgeting in fall 2007 for the continued classified revenue losses expected in 2008. The newsroom is also sure to take its share of hits as papers like the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the Philadelphia Inquirer have announced that they face financial crisis. Buyouts were announced at the Washington Post in February, and new Tribune owner Sam Zell announced buyouts of 400 to 500, about 2% of the company’s workers. Every paper is looking at potential additional damage if recession materializes.

On Valentine’s Day 2008, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced that the newsroom would shed 100 jobs, roughly 7.5%, through attrition, buyouts and, if necessary, layoffs.3

Rather than focusing on the tallies — a number that rapidly becomes dated — it seems more useful to concentrate on the factors and ramifications underlying the continuing cuts:

■What is a best estimate of the cumulative print job losses so far this decade at American newspapers?

■What are the pros and cons of cutting senior print jobs to make room for new online positions?

■In the reorganization, what areas not being covered anymore?

■To what extent, if any, are user-generated content and so-called “pro-am” collaborations helping plug some of the gaps?

■What are the implications of further rounds of staff reduction and shrinking of the paper and its news space?

These questions, and others, will be part of an extended discussion in a subsequent report by our colleague, journalist Tyler Marshall, whose reporting took a detailed look at shifting resources in newsrooms and included a quantitative component — a survey of editors from around the country. In the interim, these more general conclusions seem clear.

How Many Jobs Have Been Lost?

A year ago, we estimated that 3,000 newsroom jobs had disappeared since a recent peak in news gathering and editing employment at newspapers at the end of 2000.

So it came as some surprise to many when the American Society of Newspaper Editors announced in April that full-time professional newsroom employment stood at 57,000 at the end of 2006, as high as it had ever been.4

There is an explanation for the apparent discrepancy. In the most recent census, the editors association began counting online news staff for the first time, turning up 2,000 “new” jobs. The previous year, ASNE had started to include an estimate of news staff devoted to free distribution, adding 1,300 more to the total (a point that was not entirely clear from the initial report). An “apples-to-apples” examination of the data suggests a loss of 3,000 jobs in the period is about right, if one looks at the universe of people in the print newspaper.

In April 2008, ASNE announced census results as of the end of 2007.  An estimated 2,400 additional fulltime, professional newsroom jobs were lost.  That brings the total contraction for the decade to about 5,500 jobs or roughly 10 %.

ASNE also issued revised totals for the two most recent years, indicating that it had far overestimated the number of editorial jobs at free daily newspapers.  With the revisions, the total estimate is 52,600 fulltime, professional news jobs as of the end of 2007.  And there have been numerous additional cutbacks through attrition, buyouts and layoffs in the first four months of 2008

Newspaper Newsroom Workforce
1977-2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: American Society of Newspaper Editors, Newsroom Employment Census, 2006
Minorities include Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. ASNE began counting online news jobs in the 2006 totals.

The 2001-02 recession was described as the worst in the industry since World War II, and 2,000 news jobs were lost in one year. Now industry executives are telling investors that 2007 and 2008 are even worse, and most newspapers no longer have the cushion of comfortable profit margins.

As recently as 2006, small and mid-sized papers were doing relatively well, less reliant on classifieds, facing less competition for ad dollars, and somewhat immune from the job cuts. But a mid-year check by co-author Rick Edmonds found the stress and the cutting spreading. Mike Pride, editor of the highly regarded Concord Monitor, said he was drafting himself to be on the reporting team for the New Hampshire primary and let five newsroom positions (with a staff count in the 40s) “go dark” in mid 2007.

Roanoke Times publisher Debbie Meade said conditions were softening and announced a few weeks later that 27 jobs (not all in news) had been frozen or eliminated and 21 buyouts were being offered to a total staff of 450, a downsizing over all of about 10%.5

It remains true that financial pressure and shrinking staff are most acute at big city metros. To take an extreme case, the San Jose Mercury News now operates with less than half the news staff it fielded in the Silicon Valley boom times of the 1990s. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Dallas Morning News, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and all Tribune papers except the Chicago flagship are among others that have experienced deep — 30% to 50 % — newsroom cuts. In the newest round, announced in February, the Los Angeles Times would lose 5% to 6% more from news from its total of 887 (40 to 50 people), the Baltimore Sun 45 people from all departments, the Hartford Courant the same.

Another facet in newsroom staffing is redeployment both to online and to various niche publications, catering to target audiences and many driven by luxury advertising. One regional editor told us that he still has an editorial staff of about 100, but that 15 of those are now working on online or niche rather than traditional newsgathering and editing — what amounts to a 15% decline in editorial staff.

In this respect the industry is reprising a trend of the 1980s and 1990s, when a large volume of page makeup and proofing was moved out of production departments into the newsrooms. The consensus now is that copy desks were generally asked to absorb the work but that they were not staffed up proportionately.

The waves of announcements of buyouts and layoffs occurring now indicate a real diminishment of expert senior news staff and the critical areas they covered. Still, as was evident in the 2007 figures from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the creation of new jobs in online ventures lessens the total staff declines. Counting the jobs that have migrated to newspaper’s online ventures, a topic we will treat next, overall newsroom employment remains at 90% to 95 % of what it ever was – even as the total losses for 2007 and in progress during 2008 remain to be tabulated.

Newspapers still by all estimates have far more people reporting on their communities than any other news organizations in their towns, and for many the cuts have been quite surgical. But some, particularly big metros that have announced multiple and sizable rounds of reductions, are different papers than at the beginning of this decade. There has also been an enormously deflating – if not measurable – hit to morale as news people enter 2008 uncertain whether their job may be one of the trims in the next round of reorganization. News excellence even sometimes seems at the margins in the current discussions of new business models.

The Online Job Shuffle

The Dallas Morning News made substantial newsroom cuts in 2002, 2004 and 2006. But in one week in mid-2007 the paper also made two hires– a senior online executive and a talented young copy editor. Editor Bob Mong explains this was not an isolated instance. After big cuts like the 111 buyouts in 2006 and the savings of keeping jobs open for a period of time, some rehiring takes place – different people for different positions.

Our colleague Tyler Marshall, preparing a separate PEJ report on staffing changes at dailies, observed the same pattern at the South Florida Sun Sentinel and several other newsrooms he visited: cuts followed after a while by a meaningful number of new hires.

As one prominent Midwestern editor told PEJ bluntly: “For the price of two senior people, who weren’t willing to learn new skills, I can hire three or maybe four young people who can do more new technology where I really need them.”

These unannounced new hires mean that net newsroom job losses may be less than what you would expect by totaling announced cuts and projecting similar losses by attrition at other papers.

More fundamentally it highlights some options newsrooms now have for generating more breaking news and multimedia content for their Web sites, a near-universal strategy now:

■ Some people may simply be reassigned from the print newsroom to the Web operation. At least some of the top online editors have been print veterans to assure continuity with newsroom standards.

■ Nearly all print reporters are asked to file breaking news quickly to the Web, as well as feed blogs and reader discussion sites, so some of the time they used to spend developing their daily or weekend stories has been transferred to the online operation. This also represents a time and values shift, driven perhaps by readers, from more reflective larger or analytical pieces to faster more incremental updates.

■ Nearly all photographers and a number of reporters shoot video for the Web along with still photos. The Dallas Morning News now has most of its photographers shooting video only and gets pictures for the print newspaper from frames of the video.

■ With all that repurposing of the traditional newsroom, expanding sites still need new hires, typically young and versatile in all things digital. The youth movement will become even more of a trend as sites move into such areas as social networking and text transmission.

Since many streams are feeding online content, newspapers are getting in the habit of announcing newsroom reorganizations and Web-first initiatives along with staff cuts. This version of doing more with less amounts to cutting staff devoted to print, then doing the online development with a few additional jobs and a lot of redeployment.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution may be the most far-reaching and closely watched such experiment. Editor Julia Wallace has done away with the traditional method of organizing departments around section topics like sports, features and business. Instead the staff, while still containing some beat writers and specialist editors, is now divided into breaking news and enterprise groups with separate editing/production teams for print and online.6

Pouring resources into online in this fashion helps break the newsroom of lingering attachment to the traditional print once-a-day cycle and attempts to get ahead of what many see as an inevitable movement of audience to heavier consumption of news on the Web and other digital devices.

While that makes broad strategic sense, something is lost in the process, namely parts of a traditional metro newspaper report. We turn to that topic next.

What Coverage Is Being Lost?

For a time, news executives used to package announcements of buyout plans and other staff cuts with the reassurance that those who remained would figure out “a way to do more with less.” By the end of 2007, headed into further editorial belt-tightening in 2008, that formulation had worn thin.

A first goal for many editors was to identify and eliminate things that, with new technology, people could now readily get elsewhere

Certainly some of what is gone would fit this category. Stock tables, for instance (due for even deeper cuts or elimination at some papers in 2008), took up pages of space when the same information was available, free and up-to-the-minute, online.

Reporters at all papers, even such icons as the New York Times and the Washington Post, have been encouraged to write tighter. While a controversial notion when introduced in an extreme form by USA Today in the early 1980s — with a prohibition against stories that exceeded a few paragraphs or required a “jump” to a second page — in a more general sense, concision is always, of course, better. And in an age when news consumption now occurs continuously throughout the day, the notion that print stories should contain all details (especially when background material can be found online in various forms) seems even more questionable. The case can be made that papers, 10% to 20% bigger in news space a decade ago, may have been providing more detail than today’s busy readers (with Web access) really want.

But the issue of what constitutes unnecessary content and what represents a key part of newspaper’s identity and appeal can be more subtle.

In 2005 and 2006, regional papers with national and international bureaus — like the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun – -eliminated them. The move didn’t go down well with sophisticated and cosmopolitan readers. Even some of the editors who implemented the changes thought they were unwise.

The argument for a metro paper continuing to offer its own coverage of matters that are national or international in scope, or about issues such as culture and society, follows something along these lines:

Newspapers don’t simply report on what happens in a community in a literal sense. They also reflect and define a community’s identity, its concept of itself, its aspirations and mythology. The paper, in a sense, represents how people see themselves and the region. This is an essential part of why people buy the paper and look to it as an authority. If a large part of a community is particularly interested in a region of the world, for instance, due perhaps to a heavy Jewish, Middle Eastern, European or Hispanic population, readers expect a paper to reflect those interests in those subjects and deliver it to them. If a community is particularly interested in art, or books, having writers on those issues may be vital. If people are talking about obesity, or the campaign for president in their town, they want to see that conversation, tied to and tailored to their community, in the paper.

Thus, cutting back on key elements of this definitional or community identifying coverage could define a newspaper as too provincial, and people may stop reading it altogether. The metropolitan paper would thus be caught in no-man’s-land: too narrow for the readers who consider themselves sophisticated, but not local enough to cover my neighborhood, my suburb, school and government. Why get the Los Angeles Times or the Boston Globe at all? Why not instead combine NYTimes.com and other national sources with the more micro-local newspaper more closely connected to one’s neighborhood and leave it at that?

A hard choice .

The easy part was over heading into 2007, and editors by and large tell us the year’s cuts were of muscle rather than flab. “The lower hanging fruit is gone, and so is some of the higher hanging fruit,” said Bill Keller of the New York Times, in announcing the next round of cuts.7

A small but indicative trend was the willingness of many papers to drop their own film critics and sometimes book and television critics, too. The reasoning went that in-house reviewers do not add much value since there is nothing local about the content of most movies. Why not run Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times or Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times instead? Papers as large as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Detroit Free Press eliminated the film critic job. Stories on the trend reported at least a dozen such layoffs or reassignments. The total was probably higher with more such moves on the way in 2008.8

Less visibly, metro papers have been thinning the ranks of specialty reporters. Science is a good example, though there are others – higher education, religion. Science is doubly exposed in the current climate – it may not be perceived as an audience pleaser, plus many of the best reporters are experienced veterans and hence buyout candidates. After looking at this area in particular, our sense is that high-profile topics like health and fitness, the environment and global warming still get attention; the rest of science not.

Highly regard papers like the St. Petersburg Times and the News and Observer of Raleigh no longer have science writers. Strong science sections used to be commonplace. One study in the 1980s counted 91 of them. Now the total is about 35 and most of those have been refocused on personal health and fitness.9

The effect is that the public information office spinners are increasingly in the ascendant. The reporter who writes about research coming out of a local university or hospital may not have much background to separate a breakthrough from hype.

There are pockets of broad and well-executed science reporting – the weekly Science Times section of the New York Times or Scientific American magazine. But the average reader of the average metro won’t find much of that any more.

Bob Mong, editor of the Dallas Morning News, used to have an admired science section with a staff of half a dozen; he now is down to a single science reporter. “We used to try to be excellent in everything. Now we have to pick a few centers of excellence and make do with less elsewhere,” he explained . “In our case, we picked K-12 education and local/state investigations – not the ones that win Pulitzers but that have impact here.”10

Many newspapers have been including a heightened emphasis on local news as part of a package of new approaches. The idea is that national and international news is a commodity, readily available 24/7 for free on the Web, so local newsgathering is the newspaper’s remaining strategic strength. Newspapers including the Albany Times-Union and the Cleveland Plain Dealer have moved to an all local front with only “teasers” to national and international stories inside.

Yet at many metro papers, local news staff and space have emerged as the biggest single targets for cuts.

Bill Marimow, a regional editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s and 1990s who returned as editor in January 2007, said that the large suburban staffs and big twice-a-week sections of that era are gone. That is how a paper like the Inquirer and others can manage a staff reduction in the hundreds.

A few papers – the Fort Worth Star Telegram, St. Petersburg Times, the Daily Herald in the Chicago suburbs and the News Journal in Westchester suburbs of New York – have gathered substantial audience and advertising with professionally staffed multiple daily editions. For many others, however, this strategy of “zoning” has proved a marginal business proposition and thus a logical target for the budget knife.

Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, put it succinctly, after the big cuts of summer 2007: “We can’t afford to cover the Richmond City Council any more.”11 (Richmond is an East Bay city of 100,000 that is a suburb of San Francisco.) In effect, the big-city paper cedes the area to whatever small daily or weekly serves it.

At smaller papers, the same dynamic plays out in stopping or decreasing coverage of the borough or township nearby.

The disappearance of this type of nuts-and-bolts government accountability coverage may not provoke as much notice or controversy as eliminating a foreign bureau, but potentially leaves millions of readers without the attention metros used to provide to the place they live. And in some markets, where no suburban papers exist to fill the niche, it may also mean that the activities in some of these communities, governmental and otherwise, will effectively occur in the dark until such time as new media evolve to cover them.

Is User-Generated Content an Answer?

If deploying professional reporters to gather the news over a wide metropolitan area is no longer an economically viable proposition, to what extent can we expect citizen reporters or citizens assisted by professional journalists fill the gaps? ( See Citizen Media in Online Chapter)

The idea has been on the table for some time. At this point, large replicable successes have been elusive.

There is clear evidence that the field of freestanding citizen news sites, often staffed by people who once worked for local news operations, is growing.

Our own more subjective review finds that the most robust of citizen news sites—such as h2otown in Watertown, near Boston, Chi Town Daily News, the New Haven Independent, Baristanet in Montclair, N.J., are a good deal more than blogs but something less than a full online newspaper. They run on the energy and ingenuity of their proprietors and have developed loyal audiences. Their financial footing is still emerging. Some others like Backfence in several Washington, D.C., suburbs have failed as businesses, but the publishers say they will try again with lessons learned.

The Knight Foundation believes in the potential of such experiments and is putting $25 million over five years in grants for them through its News Challenge, believing they can potentially plug many of the gaps left as newspapers and their news efforts decline.

Newspapers are conducting their own experiments with so-called hyperlocal sites that rely on user contributions. In 2007, the Washington Post launched LoudonExtra.com in suburban Loudon County, hoping to focus on just one county with robust content. That experiment is probably too young to evaluate fully.

Also, the typical newspaper site now has a substantial volume of reader comment, though policing for incivility and worse has proved a major headache.

Other papers – the Bakersfield Californian and the Rocky Mountain News are prominent examples – are now several years into hyperlocal experiments in which most of the content comes from readers. The level of engagement is encouraging but the contributions run more to soft stuff like pet pictures than reporting or civic discussion. Nor have such experiments been especially successful attracting advertising (some do make some money by “reverse publishing” material into print form).

Last year brought some interesting variations on the idea of melding citizen and professional journalism. The Fort Myers ( Fla.) News-Press, a Gannett paper, employs a number of mobile journalists, so-called MOJOs who rarely come to the office and instead roam the city’s neighborhoods gathering ground-level news and video clips. The News-Press also has drawn on its area’s retiree population and engages journalism amateurs with technical or investigative skills to help on project work.

However, papers are not generally mobilizing citizens or inexpensive freelancers to cover local government meetings (the way many do for high school sports).

Another closely watched experiment, MinnPost.com, is an independent nonprofit founded with donations, user contributions and a Knight grant. It is online only and the twist is that the editors and contributors are professionals, most of them laid off or bought out by the Twin Cities dailies. They are paid for their contributions but not close to a full-time wage.

So Web publications, built on the contributions of citizens or donated effort of professionals, are taking shape. Newspapers are squarely focused on harnessing audience engagement that generates material of interest.

However, the caution of Dan Gillmor, an ardent advocate of citizen journalism still applies: don’t count on the new form to do the most ambitious and complicated work of traditional news organizations.12

Courting Danger

Where do the cuts of 2007 and the coming cuts of 2008, leave print newspapers with their remaining loyal readers? They are treading a very fine line trying to balance financial realism with a public service ideal and the more practical necessity of a substantive, appealing product.

Sharply critical of the strategy of cutting back to sustain profit margins in the face of declining audience, Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, applied the aviation phrase “death spiral” to newspapers some years ago. By that he meant a cycle in which circulation and advertising losses led to news cutbacks which in turn sparked more business reverses and then more cutbacks.

The metaphor may be overly dramatic, but the cycle now is unquestionably playing out. The question is whether it is inevitable.

Newspapers that have made a big and steady investment in the news report still have some maneuvering room for cuts. But if they have operated on tight margins, they may also be among those feeling the current pinch most acutely.

Those who have already published lean reports for some time are running out of further options for subtraction that will escape notice. If, as Gannett said at a December 2006 investors’ meeting, the print newspaper reader of the present and future is “older, better educated and more affluent,” they also look with a particularly critical eye.

The strained relationship between newspapers and their readers can also be seen in online comment strings – lightening rods when the subject is downsizing.

A small example: In Orange County, Calif., in early February, Terry Horne, the publisher of the Register, wrote to readers that “difficult decisions” on cuts were motivated by drastically deteriorating business conditions, not “greed.”

Reader Linda Tate replied: “I haven’t canceled my subscription yet. I’m curious to see how long it will take you to put yourselves out of business.”13

Angry readers are nothing new. But the industry is well past the point where it can imagine the reductions in coverage won’t be noticed.

Footnotes

1. Jon Cote, “Chronicle to Cut 100 Jobs, Union Says,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 17, 2007.

2. Roy Greenslade, “’Economic Realities’ Behind Job Losses at USA Today,” The Guardian, November 16, 2007.

3. Richard Perez-Pena, “New York Times Plans to Cut 100 Newsroom Jobs,” New York Times, February 14, 2008.

4. American Society of Newspaper Editors, “Diversity Slips in U.S. Newsrooms,” press release, March 26, 2007.

5. Rick Edmonds, “Newsroom Staff Cuts: Selective Pain,” Poynter Online, June 11, 2007.

6. Carl Sessions Stepp, “Transforming the Architecture,” AJR, October-November 2007.

7. Richard Perez-Pena, “New York Times Plans to Cut 100 Newsroom Jobs,” New York Times, February 14, 2008.

8. Jennifer Dorrah, “The End of the Affair,” AJR, August-September 2007.

9. Cristine Russell, “Covering Controversial Science: Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy,” Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University, 2006.

10. Interview with co-author Edmonds, September 2007.

11. Ibid

12. Dan Gillmor, “We the Media,” O’Reilly, 204, pages xvi-xviii.

13. Terry Horne, “A Message From the Publisher on Changes at the Register,” and comments, freedomblogging.com, February 1, 2008.