When I was a journalist in Montana, I wrote stories about endangered species — grizzly bears, wolves, eagles. Now my concern is about another endangered species — journalists.
In April, the Pew Research Center reported that the nation’s newspapers have cut about half of all editorial jobs since 2008.
The number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 51% between 2008 and 2019, from about 71,000 workers to 35,000.
It’s not just a newspaper problem. Overall newsroom employment — in newspapers, radio, broadcast television and cable news — dropped 23%, from 114,000 newsroom employees in 2008 to 88,000 jobs.
Worse still: These statistics predated the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to another widespread series of layoffs, salary cuts, furloughs and newsroom consolidations. And folding newspapers.
Revenues at many publications fell 50% or more when the pandemic forced the closure of many to most of the businesses that advertise in local media.
It remains unclear when — or even if — those local businesses will fully reopen.
Instead of dying a death by a thousand cuts over another decade, local news media are being killed in weeks and months by COVID-19.
In my more than 50 years in the news business, I’ve worked for three daily newspapers, five bureaus of The Associated Press, a weekly newspaper in Montana, and TownNews, a digital media company.
Of the three dailies I worked for — the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News — only two survive. The Rocky Mountain News, which predated statehood (starting in 1859) folded on Feb. 27, 2009. May the feisty tabloid rest in peace. The Rocky was one of the first to die.
The Denver Post and Daily Camera, once stalwarts of their communities, are now owned by a New York hedge fund that has done everything it can to wring profits from the newspapers with virtually no reinvestment. The COVID-19 crisis has pushed them closer to the endangered species list where they — sadly — will find plenty of company.
The fabled Associated Press struggles as well, although not as much as the daily newspaper industry that founded the AP. The AP has many fewer reporters, editors and stringers than it had in its prime. The impoverished newspaper industry is in no position to shore up the AP, which has grown increasingly dependent on non-newspaper revenue.The AP has eliminated all chief of bureau jobs (in favor of regional sales staffs), cut staffing at most bureaus, trimmed state reports, eliminated most stringers and posted much of its news report all over the World Wide Web. (The AP’s once stalwart competitor, UPI, now exists in name only.)
The weekly newspaper I co-owned and edited for 14 years — the Bigfork (Montana) Eagle, went out of business before being resurrected last year as a shell of itself. I fear the COVID-19 pandemic will return the Eagle to the newspaper graveyard. Many of my cohorts and friends in the weekly newspaper field are facing very difficult times as their retail base has all but disappeared.
For many years, weekly newspapers were the backbone/heart/ conscience of their communities. Many if not most were locally owned and dedicated to their communities. (Typical of many publishers, I served on the chamber of commerce board, was president of the development company and attended and covered local service clubs.)
The “little guys’ ” problems are pretty much overshadowed by the news from group publishers.
We see many reports about the board room activities of the over-leveraged companies that own many of the nation’s newspapers. Pew and others report the nationwide statistics of newsroom cuts.
But this problem is much deeper than statistics and financial reports.
It’s a problem many in the public don’t see coming.
The general public may think of journalism as the daily battles between the president and the White House press corps or the often contradictory news reports on Fox and CNN/MSNBC. Some now think of journalism as mainly “fake news” or political propaganda.
But the real hit is coming at the local level. The staff cuts are coming mostly among the journalists who cover city council, county board and planning board meetings. Coverage of public affairs and prep sports, street fairs, art festivals and other local events is going to diminish if not disappear. The future of letters to the editor, obits, birth and wedding announcements is in jeopardy.
We will have more and more so-called “news deserts.” More places where it’s easy for public officials and others to bilk the public.
Google and Facebook — the duopoly that has gobbled up most advertising — can try to fill the void, but they in some measure have built their audiences on the content produced by journalists who are now on the endangered species list.
State and national press associations — now needed more than ever — are fighting for their lives as membership and dues dwindle. Journalism schools are or have taken “journalism” out of their names.
So who’s going to run and fund Freedom of Information hotlines? Who’s going to fill the watchdog role that many of us believe is critical to a healthy democracy?
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Marc Wilson is chairman emeritus of TownNews. He worked as a reporter for three daily newspapers and five bureaus of The Associated Press. He co-owned and was editor and publisher of the weekly Bigfork (Montana) Eagle for 14 years.