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News Investment

Newspapers
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
News Investment (Updated April 22, 2010 to reflect estimates of newsroom job losses.)

Here is a short history of how newsroom cuts have played out at large metro papers:

  • 1980-2000:  Big newsrooms, hundreds and hundreds of reporters, more than 1,000 at the Los Angeles Times.1 The most ambitious regionals had a few foreign bureaus and multiple investigative projects cooking at any time.  In retrospect, this staffing may have been a little flush.  Newspapers were making so much money they could satisfy investors with huge profits and still afford a big news effort.
  • 2000-2005:  A nasty recession opens the decade.  More than 2,000 professional newsroom jobs (about 4% of the total) disappear in 2001.2 They do not come back as the industry chooses to squeeze expenses to keep profits up.  The news investment section of our 2005 report quotes leading industry executives asked at an editors convention to grade how their newspapers are discharging their public service function.  Most give it about a C.
  • 2006-2008:  Now the deterioration of ad revenue and deep newsroom cuts begin in earnest.  Another 7,500 news jobs vanish.3 Those foreign bureaus are closed. Many specialty beats are shut down. Metros can no longer afford to cover outlying suburbs.  The most experienced (and highest salaried) reporters and editors are targeted with buyout/early retirement packages.
  • 2009-early 2010:  Horrible recession and accelerating ad losses force continuing deep cuts.  Separate business and features sections disappear.  The space for news, especially on light advertising days, has been squeezed to a fraction of what it once was.  Statehouse and Washington bureaus are gutted or closed. All but the most positive newsroom survivors are mourning the departure of colleagues, worried they may be next to be axed and pessimistic about the industry’s future.  The latest job-cutting target is to slash the copy desk.  Readers see less news and many more typos and factual errors.

Some industry boosters would say that this inventory dwells on the negative.  Even with all those cuts, newspaper organizations still have 41,500 journalists, about 70% of what they once fielded.4 The newspaper still typically has the biggest newsgathering force in a given community. A Project for Excellence in Journalism case study of Baltimore published in January 2010 found that the Baltimore Sun, as depleted a metro as one could find, still did the great majority of original reporting on six major stories sampled.5

On the other hand, the cutting has not stopped yet, and the next round of options looks even less appealing than the last.  Newspapers don’t have much of a track record of reinvesting in news after a recession passes.  Will this be an exception as the economy gradually picks up?

A usually positive news executive surprised us in late 2009, commenting, “Have you been around the country lately?  Most of the papers are just awful.”  The locals are noticing too, judging by the bitter complaints that dominate comment chains any time a paper announces more cutbacks.  Surely quality has something to do with the sudden doubling of the rate of circulation losses.

The dynamic comes uncomfortably close to what scholar Philip Meyer, borrowing an aviation term, dubbed the “death spiral” several years back – the point at which cuts required to maintain profitably hasten further flight by readers and further losses of ad revenue.   It is not clear how the industry, as it charges more in print and explores paid online content, can regain some forward thrust in the news report it offers in either format.

Measuring the Losses 

Typically in years past, we have tried to quantify the industry’s news effort by referring to the American Society of News Editors newsroom census (For a detailed discussion of those numbers, the losses at particular metro papers and details of the changes summarized above, see the News Investment section of last year’s report).

The ASNE census results for calendar 2009 were released in mid-April, 2010. It showed a loss of 5,200 newsroom professional jobs, not quite as high as the 5,900 lost in 2008, and 700 less than this report initially estimated it might be. One difference is that ASNE this year included some online-only newspapers in its count, representing 284 jobs, that it did not include in previous years. With those new online-only newsrooms included, that brings newsroom employments down to 41,500 from a high from a high of 56,400 in 2000.6 The percentage losses are higher at big metros and lower at smaller papers.

Several analysts tried over the last year to offer an alternative measure of what has been lost.

Co-author Rick Edmonds suggested in an October 2009 article that newspapers are spending $1.6 billion less annually on news than they had been just three years ago.

That estimate, probably conservative, begins by taking the $21.5 billion reported in ad losses and an estimated $1.5 billion in circulation revenue losses, reducing the industry from approximately $60 billion in 2005 and 2006 to $37 billion in 2009.

The Inland Press Association Cost and Revenue Study has found newsroom expense to range between 8% and 15% of revenues, depending on the size of the paper.  To avoid any risk of inflating a number, Edmonds estimated current average newsroom share at 12% of revenues and also assumed the figure was two percentage points lower three years ago when more went to profit.

That calculates to $6 billion spent on news three years ago, $4.4 billion now, or a loss of $1.6 billion.  If one figured average newsroom share to be a bit higher or the differential because of lower profit margin to be less, the figure for losses easily rises above $2 billion.7

Independently, analyst Ken Doctor, in his new book. “Newsonomics” (February 2010), suggests that 828,000 articles were not published in a year as a consequence of the news jobs eliminated in 2007 and 2008.8

These estimates also raise a pair of tough questions, not easily answered.  How much of the work lost was expendable or duplicative, with little impact on quality for the reader? And, how much of the shift is leading to content better tailored to the interests of readers?  Many articles in the good old days were overlong.  The industry is still hacking at inefficiencies like having six editors read a single story or sending hundreds of reporters, editors and photographers to the Super Bowl.

Is the fast-growing new-media sector making up much of the real slack?  The PEJ Baltimore study suggests not; most of the blogs and alternative sites were made of links to the original reporting or opinion without any additional reporting.  The numbers also suggest a huge difference in scale.  The best and biggest local startups like MinnPost and Voice of San Diego have annual operating budgets of $1 million or so.  Thus it would take 1,600 of those to cover the $1.6 billion news deficit.9

Academic Clay Shirky of New York University expressed a version of the same thought in a celebrated essay early in 2009, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.”  It is quite possible, he argued, that newspapers and other old media will fade faster than the replacement news system takes shape, leaving a sort of journalism limbo of several years duration.  This, Shirky wrote, “is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”10

Downsizing Trends of 2009

The deep cuts of the last 18 months did not so much veer in a new direction as continue the trends already becoming evident by mid-2008.  These included:

Targeting Higher Paying Jobs:

As revenues fell fast at the end of 2008 and all through 2009, companies sought the maximum savings by getting rid of the best-paid, most-experienced reporters and editors. So buyouts, offered only to those with decades of experience, continued to be in favor, sometimes with explicit warnings that generous severance packages would expire if eligible staffers postponed the decision to move on.  Institutional memory and mentoring of younger reporters were two of the casualties in this approach.

The Copy Desk as Target:

Concurrently copy editing has been scaled way back at many metros.  Layers of editing became viewed as a nice quality-control luxury but not a necessity.  Many of the copy editors asked to leave were experienced and well paid.  A number of large organizations – Gannett, Scripps, and the Associated Press – moved to consolidate copy editing at regional centers, losing something of local knowledge but realizing additional savings.  The new secured-lender owners of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis mandated a reduction of 30 positions, 18 of them on the copy desk, in January 2010.11

Starting Over:

In one of the more extreme cost-cutting strategies that emerged in 2009, several newspapers let the entire newsroom staff go, then asked the ex-employees to reapply to a restructured company. Gannett’s Journal-News in New York City’s Westchester County suburb went that route in August. Seventy of 288 news and ad sales jobs were cut.12 Those who successfully reapplied had changes in duties but retained their pay.  New media skills were emphasized in the reapplications.

Advance’s Ann Arbor News in Michigan went one step farther, closing as a business in July and then reopening as a new website with a twice-weekly print publication.  The site, with a nontraditional social media tilt, re-employed fewer than half of the news staffers let go, and those at substantially lower salaries.

Since both of these were efforts of large chains, they can be looked at as pilots that may be instituted more broadly if management deems them a success.

Partnering And Pro-Ams:

In 2008, a number of newspapers decided that competition for top-dog status with other papers in their state something they could no longer afford.  Former rivals began collaborating instead:  Three South Florida papers sharing local coverage, eight Ohio papers sharing stories (a structure picked up in Maine and other states).  The statehouse bureaus of the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times merged.

In 2009 newspapers took a further step from the tradition of originating all the important stories they run.  The Kaiser Family Foundation launched a new health policy news service with a cadre of experienced health journalists and placed its stories with the Washington Post and other prominent publications.  The Post also accepted a piece on the a proposed federal budget commission from Fiscal Times, a similar specialty site, and this occasioned some embarrassment when it was revealed that the service is being paid for by financier Pete Peterson, a longtime critic of what he regarded excessive federal spending.  In its business section, the Post now runs media stories by the Web sites Paid Content and TechCrunch.

The New York Times is drawing content for its new regional editions in San Francisco and Chicago from heavily endowed nonprofits in the two cities.  ProPublica, the national investigative site, now has 32 working journalists and continues to offer most of its projects free to a collaborating newspaper or television outlets.13

A less-noticed trend we expect to build momentum this year is for newspapers to farm out some content to freelance writers or citizen volunteers.  There are several networks now for aspiring writers both displaying work on a home site and helping place it.  One of the largest of these businesses, Helium, began offering articles in late 2008 to papers in Lawrence, Mass., and Springfield, Ill., then added the Hearst chain as a client in early 2009.  The Helium writers take on soft lifestyle features and neighborhood news, providing inexpensive content and freeing up professional staff to work on tougher stories. Demand Media, which commissions stories according to measures of advertiser demand, also is syndicating content to newspaper companies.

More broadly, interest is building for so-called “pro-am” journalism in which a few professionals assign and coordinate the work of volunteers or inexpensive freelancers.  It is an attractive avenue for rebuilding some of the coverage lost in the reversals of the last three years while not incurring the expense of rehiring professionals to do all of that work.

Top Editors Depart:

Another quiet trend of the last several years has been the departure of many editors and managing editors.  A few have quit or been fired when they openly objected to cuts – Jim O’Shea, editor of the Los Angeles Times in early 2008, Ken Otterbourg, managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal in January 2010.  Other departures during 2009 seemed to be cases of incompatibility with new management – John Mancini of Newsday and Karin Winner of the San Diego Union TribuneThe Chicago Tribune lost both editor Ann Marie Lipinski and managing editor George de Lama in mid-2008.  At the Oregonian after an extended internal restructuring study, editor Sandra Mims Rowe decided to retire at the end of 2009, leaving executive editor Peter Bhatia in charge.  Both are past presidents of the American Society of News Editors.

The general point is that the job cutting (or talent drain, depending on your view) affects not just senior reporters and line editors.  Many top editors have left the business, and publishers figure that a smaller group of senior editors is needed to oversee the much smaller news staffs.

What the Editors Say

We asked a number of top editors of metros for comments on what has been lost in their newsrooms, what remains and where they would reinvest should additional budget for news become available.  Their take is typically somewhat more optimistic than the raw numbers would indicate.  Here are some responses:

  • Martin Kaiser, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  In the face of cutbacks, the Journal Sentinel actually expanded local investigative efforts, figuring that high-impact projects were part of what readers most wanted.  Two projects have already won major national prizes early in 2010.  Kaiser also said that in 2009 more readers than ever before sent encouraging messages, asking that the paper keep on doing what it’s doing.
  • Neil Brown, St. Petersburg Times.  Early focus groups showed readers didn’t have time to read big papers early in the week. So the newshole was reduced selectively leaving more room later in the week and especially on Sunday. A follow-up survey found that readers were spending more time reading the paper after the cuts, which included elimination of freestanding business and features sections weekdays. In 2009, the Times slightly reduced some of its zoning and found resources to do a major investigation of alleged physical and mental abuse by the leader of the Church of Scientology. (The Church, in turn, has hired seven investigative reporters to examine the Times). The Times also shifted some resource to expand its popular, award-winning political fact-checking Web site, PolitiFact.
  • Martin Baron, Boston Globe. Cutbacks of space and people have been the occasion for sharper focus on what the Globe does well.  So there may be less content but it is vetted to be “unique and enterprising,” of higher interest and higher impact.  That’s necessary, Baron said, “because we are an expensive paper, $600-a-year-plus, second to the New York Times.”  The news report, he said, has “less breadth – and that is something lost.”  Should news budget money become available, Baron said he would put it all in digital, especially mobile, where competitors are already trying to get a foothold.
  • Karen Peterson, News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington.  Like many metros, the News Tribune has pulled coverage of smaller communities and focused resources and space on local enterprise and investigative reporting.  Were money available, her first priority would be restoring some of the cuts in news hole and giving raises to star reporters and editors.  Some loss of circulation is not all bad, she said; “If we have more dedicated,smarter core readers, that’s a good thing.”

Other New-Media Content  

Tight as money was, 2009 was not an expansionary year for much of anything, and our sense is that changes in the editorial side of newspaper Web sites was mostly incremental.

Home page design, which had grown crowded and cluttered at many papers, got a cleaner, easier-to-navigate look at a number of papers.

Papers pressed on at making their websites the place for breaking news.  Many encouraged a “Web-first” strategy of looking for the first treatment online – often with several expansions and updates as detail on a breaking story became available. In theory, only then would reporters and editors turn to planning a print version that advanced the story.

“Stickiness” – that is getting visitors to spend longer on site – continues to be an objective. Statistics show, however, that traffic from search steadily increases as a share of total traffic. Those so-called “drive-by” visits, combined with the preference of some online users to do no more than a quick scan of headlines, drove average time on site down rather than up at many papers.

Not so many years ago, the online news operation at a typical metro was small and tucked into a corner or an office on a different floor from the newsroom.  Full integration of the print and online efforts now is the norm.  In 2009, the Washington Post moved its online department from separate quarters across the river in Virginia into the Post’s newsroom.  Marcus Brauchli and his editing team give online more emphasis than had longtime executive editor Leonard Downie and his managing editor, Phil Bennett.

At the New York Times, executive editor Bill Keller chose not to replace Jonathan Landman, who had requested reassignment after several years overseeing digital and became culture editor.  Keller explained that he and managing editors Jill Abramson and John Geddes needed to take charge directly of that side of the operation rather than delegate.

Web news staffs, while not as heavily hit as print newsrooms, did not escape the job cutting of 2009.  Editors tended to dial down emphasis on professional-quality produced videos, as the traffic they drew failed to justify the expense.

Looking forward, 2010 may be a year of development of mobile news presentation on the theory that more and more users will access digital news in that fashion over the next several years.  We also hear editors saying that a next generation digital news skill is going to be picking the right mix of story-telling tools depending on the nature of the news event.

Of course, as they feel their way forward in the digital sphere, traditional newspapers face more competitors, at least some of them very solidly grounded in professional journalism skills (and staffed by motivated professionals who were victims of the downsizing).  The optimists argue that newspaper organizations are down to fighting weight, focused on innovation and stronger in print than doomsayers give them credit.

The opposite view is that less really is less, and newspapers are falling far short on public service, thin and dumbed-down in a way that irritates discerning readers as well as displaced newsroom veterans.

Glen Frankel, a Pulitzer winner who left the Washington Post, taking one of the early buyout offers, put the issue succinctly in an interview with former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple:  “If we don’t have anything important to say and no unique journalistic contributions to make, we won’t need new platforms.  We won’t need to exist at all – and we won’t.14


Footnotes

1.Shira Ovide, “Los Angeles Times to Cut Staff,” Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2009.

2. American Society of News Editors Newsroom Census.

3. American Society of News Editors Newsroom Census.

4. American Society of News Editors Newsroom Census. Includes Edmonds estimate for 2009.

5. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “How News Happens,” January 11, 2010.

6. The estimate of newsroom jobs lost in American newspapers was updated with data from the 2010 census performed by the American Society of News Editors and released April 11, 2010. The estimate used in this report at its release in March was 5,900. We have updated the narrative and charts, as well as our estimate for jobs lost over time.

7. Rick Edmonds, “Shrinking Newsrooms Have Created $1.6 Billion News Deficit,” Poynter Online, October 12, 2009.

8. Ken Doctor, Newsonomics, St. Martins Press, 2010, page 12.

9. Rick Edmonds, “Shrinking Newsrooms Have Created $1.6 Billion News Deficit,” Poynter Online, October 12, 2009.

10. Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky.com, March 13, 2009.

11. David Brauer, “Star Tribune layoffs spare reporters; target copy editors, photographers,” MinnPost.com, January 6, 2010.

12. “Westchester Journal News to Fire Everyone, Rehire Some,” Employment Spectator,  August 13, 2009.

13. Pro Publica home page, February 2010.

14. John Temple, Pulitzers Lost, What a Cost,”  Temple Talk, August 11, 2009.