When Will Newspapers Hit Bottom?

I remember when I had my first layoff scare five years ago. It was the most stressful, nerve-wracking thing I’d ever experienced. I had not been at the newspaper for a year at that point, and to see so many veteran reporters and editors let go was intimidating. I spent the next few months watching my back, even though I knew that since I was at the bottom of the food chain (and pay scale), my job was probably safe.

My memory is a little fuzzy as to when we had layoffs versus buyouts versus different people being “forced out,” but over the next four years I saw at least one a year. In 2007, there were three, with two more early in 2008. Now, my old newspaper (I left voluntarily earlier this year) is about to lay off more people this week or next. I am scared for those who are left, because it has become clear that no one is safe.

The Hits Just Keep on Coming

That’s true of all papers. Just look at what’s happened over the past few weeks:

June 12 —
Times Community Newspapers (Northern Virginia) lays off photo staffs, leaving only three photo editors to shoot for their 15+ weeklies

June 25 —
Palm Beach Post cuts 300 jobs (half the staff);

June 25 — Baltimore Sun and other Tribune properties announce layoffs of 20 percent of editorial staff (at many properties it is more like 25 percent) and reducing news content by 50 percent;

July 1 —
Hartford Courant cuts 25 percent of its staff.

Choosing to leave, as I did, is better than being forced to leave — but only slightly. I can see newspapers reaching a tipping point now that so many journalists have left. They have taken the heart of the newspaper business with them.

The layoffs have created a lifestyle of fear and paranoia. Who will be next?

Will I lose my job because I’m paid too much? Because I’ve been at the paper too long?

Because the boss doesn’t like me? Because I didn’t kiss up to the right people?

Or — perhaps — because my job can be replaced by free content from readers or wire agencies?

No One Is Safe

People aren’t losing their jobs because of incompetency. In fact, often the opposite is true. We’ve seen layoffs claim award-winning, hard-working, passionate people, while leaving inferior employees in place. This does terrible things to morale in the newsroom — not to mention work quality. Who can focus on writing in-depth stories, or working a little bit harder to get a better photo angle, when you are constantly thinking about who’ll be next?

I feel compassion for all of those in the midst of this crisis, and I think that journalism students need to pay close attention to what is happening. When I graduated college in 2000, the job market was good. It was still competitive and difficult to get a job at a good “photo paper,” but there were opportunities, with the promise of moving up as your skills improved.

That is no longer the case. Job openings are scant, and cutbacks ensure even fewer openings in the future. If I were a student now, I would not be looking to newspapers for a job. I would study something else and continue to feed that passion on the side, so I would be able to support myself after graduation.

It’s sad to see a profession die right in front of our eyes. Many journalists have told me they think the newspaper industry will “hit bottom,” and that then things will slowly start to improve. Unfortunately, each time I think we’ve hit bottom, we’ve had more cuts.

A Void to Fill

When you eliminate half the news hole, it’s not so difficult to lay off half the staff. In fact, I’m dreading the day when corporate owners decide that they only need a handful of editors and can get reader-submitted content, so there is no need for any of us. Europe has been there for years.

That would be truly tragic. Now more than ever, we need journalists to be our watchdogs. We need credible sources. We need news.

But if newspapers ultimately choose to abandon this responsibility, I am hopeful that grassroots organizations will emerge to dig through the crumbled remains and take over the role of the fourth estate.


5 Responses to “When Will Newspapers Hit Bottom?”

  1. I didn't believe my ears when I heard this morning on NPR that they've outsourced newspaper jobs to India. I had to check my calendar to make sure it wasnt April fools day. How do you send writing jobs to India?

  2. I think it is mostly copy editing and things like obituaries and other types of copy that can be collected over the phone. But it is still disturbing.

  3. Seen it in California a few years ago; it failed because the e-reporter watching on the internet couldn't follow people and ask questions later.
    But the small newspapers that are privately owned are still doing fairly well, because they cover local areas without major competition from big tv markets for advertising revenue. Away from the major metropolitan areas the conditions are looking healthier.

  4. in 1990 I was laid off during the same time cities with 2 newspapers went to 1. I applied for jobs where there were over 250 applicants. Sure I was in the top, but how do you compete with Pulitzer winners?

    When the web generates the income which the printed page use to generate for news outlets we will see many of these journalists finding new homes for work, but until then what will happen?

    Many questions in this shift in how communication is taking place. Traditional media is no longer where people get their information.

    I do think opportunity is in the web for those savvy enough to make it work.

  5. I'm afraid they've got a long long drop still ahead of them

Leave a Reply