ASNE newsroom census total reflects decline in traditional journalism jobs, growth in online

When the American Society of News Editors reported a month ago that full time newsroom employment remained about the same in 2010 compared to 2009, the result got virtually no attention.

About the same equals a non-event, right? I’m not so sure. In a year when newspapers’ circulation, revenues and profits continued to fall, keeping newsrooms whole or beginning to rehire would be a vote of confidence in the business value of news.

Frankly, I had expected a decline of 1,000 to 1,500 jobs, given the several rounds of layoffs during 2010 announced by Gannett, McClatchy, MediaNews and other companies. However, other newspapers may have been increasing their newsroom’s’ number of journalists with no ceremony. Also, new ventures on new digital platforms require some editorial staffing.

Past experience also suggests that papers sometimes hire back younger, less expensive, more technologically dexterous journalists a few months after announcing layoffs and buyouts.

ASNE gave me access to the working papers from which the census total is calculated. There is some imprecision in the methodology and possible inflation of the total, but the result still looks like progress to me, after three years in which 13,500 newsroom jobs disappeared, a decline of 24.5 percent.

At its annual conference in San Diego April 7, ASNE reported an increase of 100 jobs to total 41,600 newsroom jobs as of the end of 2010 (it always rounds these figures to the nearest hundred). Actually, the census shows traditional newspaper organizations down by about 70 jobs. The overall increase was driven by an increase of 220 in freestanding digital news organizations, which ASNE now attempts to sample and include.

While ASNE had responses from 847 of the 1,550 print dailies and online sites it surveyed, there are at least two ways in which the results may be inexact.

The definitions on the survey form are clear. ASNE seeks only to count full-time professionals. Nonetheless, a harried person at a news organization filling out the form sometimes uses the full-time equivalent staff total or newsroom headcount. Either mistake would yield a higher total by as much as 20 or 30 percent.

Also, ASNE averages the newsroom employment totals from the papers responding in a given circulation band (like 50,000 to 100,000), then projects that each non-responding paper in the group has the same number.

That works fine for most of the industry, but less well for the largest papers, with circulation above 500,000. The five biggest in both circulation and staffing — The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today — all consistently respond to the survey. For the last several years, the New York Post and New York Daily News, both with circulation just over 500,000 and smaller staffs, have not.

So averaging the staff count of the seven large papers that did report and projecting that number for the two missing ones is bound to overstate. ASNE Executive Director Richard Karpel told me that four of the seven large papers did report increases totaling about 200.

Still, it seems odd that the large paper group showed an increase of 325 jobs year-to-year to just over 5,000 with one fewer paper (nine instead of 10) in the group.

On the other hand, ASNE is almost certainly undercounting the number of journalists now working for online news organizations, which the census estimated at just over 500. Only about half the surveys mailed out were returned, and the largest organizations — Huffington Post, Politico and AOL — did not participate. A few local Patch operations did report, but the census does not begin to capture the 800 site editors Patch claims to have hired over the last year.

And what about newsroom diversity?

The survey, started in 1978, has the main goal of measuring progress (or some years, the lack thereof) in newsroom employment of minorities. Since it began, minority newsroom employment has grown dramatically from 1,900 to a peak of 7,400 in 2006 and 2007.

As a percentage, minorities were below 4 percent in 1978 and now account for 12.8 percent of newsroom jobs, according to the census.  Minorities lost jobs along with everyone else in the years 2007-2009, and last year the percentage slid as well.

Meanwhile minority population — especially Hispanics — grows year after year, so one could argue that newsrooms are losing ground in having a racial mix representative of the communities they serve. Also, since participation in the survey is voluntary, one might speculate that papers with weak minority employment and little commitment to diversity are given more credit by the projecting methodology than they deserve.

Karpel told me that under current plans, the census will definitely continue next year. But some changes to the project and ASNE itself are in the works.

ASNE has already begun to search for a research partner (a leading journalism school or some other specialist in surveys). He expects the partnership to be completed in time for the next census, which will track changes during 2011.

The census has never included wire services — a large and growing sector in 2010 as Bloomberg and Reuters both expanded. That could change, too.

Meanwhile, ASNE is voting on by-law changes that would encourage more participation from  j-schools and nonprofit research and grant-making projects like Knight’s J-Lab. Over time, the organization aims to bring in more digital startups as members and should be able to get a fuller count of how many journalists they employ.

ASNE’s leaders — current president Ken Paulson and future president David Boardman — have said that other “dramatic changes” are in the works. These could include starting new initiatives, dropping others, and possibly no longer holding annual conferences. (One scheduled for Chicago in 2009 was canceled, and attendance has been way down from its peak at the two since).

My own bias as a researcher is for the the census to continue, improve and thrive. With the right sort of partner, I think it can.

Though industry employment began as a by-product of the diversity effort, for the last decade it has been an essential benchmark of how much the industry’s news investment has fallen and, too a benchmark of when it begins to stabilize, as appears to have been the case in 2010.

ASNE’s census work has also helped inform a number of studies of the future of journalism. Both the Federal Trade Commmission and the Federal Communications Commission have drawn on it in their protracted studies of whether there is a shortfall of local news coverage and what, if anything, the federal government should do about it.

Looking ahead, 2011 has started the way 2010 ended – weak first quarter financial results and some more announced layoffs (such as those at three McClatchy papers this week).  But there is almost certainly offsetting hiring at other papers and in the digital-only sector.

Part of the transformation drama of the next few years will be whether newspaper organizations can strengthen financially, keep their core newsrooms close to current levels, and apply additional journalists to new digital ventures. A reinvigorated ASNE census can provide a data base, in place of anecdote, to document what is happening.

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