The American Society of News Editors annual newsroom census, released today, found a net loss of another 1,300 full-time professionals last year.
That was better than the 2,600 net job loss in 2012 but brings total newsroom employment at newspaper organizations to roughly 36,700, a decline of 3.2 percent from the 38,000 counted in last year’s census.
Newsroom employment has fallen 33 percent from a pre-recession peak of 55,000 in 2006 and is down 35 percent from its all-time high of 56,900 in 1989.
Asked for reaction to the 2013 census total, ASNE president David Boardman, dean of the Temple University School of Media and Communications, told me by phone, “Well, here we go again….Obviously we should all continue to be concerned about the losses.”
The census has been conducted since 1978 to measure progress in newsroom diversity. On that front, the news was better, with a small gain of 200 minority employees last year. (See separate story by my colleague Andrew Beaujon).
The simple explanation for the decline is that newspaper revenues were down again in 2013 with continued sharp losses in print advertising only partly offset by gains in digital advertising and circulation revenues.
The overall revenue figure, as measured by the Newspaper Association of America, was down 2.6 percent in 2013, close to an even match with the percentage of news job cuts for the year. It appears 2014 will be another year of revenue declines, so more newsroom attrition is virtually certain.
The losses varied widely by the circulation size of newspapers. The largest papers, with circulation of more than 500,000, recorded a gain of 5.85 percent year to-year. The smallest papers, under 10,000 circulation, were up 2.78 percent.
Losses were heavily concentrated at metros and other papers in the 100,000-500,000 circulation range where year-to-year declines were roughly 16 percent.
(These figures are broadly accurate in tracking where change is occurring but less exact than those for the census as a whole because of shifts in how circulation is now being measured and movement of some papers from one band to another).
This year 965 of 1373 daily newspapers surveyed completed the census. Projections are used for the non-participants to arrive at a total industry estimate.
ASNE also makes some changes year to year in how it does the count. For instance the 2013 census, for the first time, included results from 17 corporate news production hubs, which have absorbed desk work that used to be done at individual newspapers.
For a third year, the census was funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and done by the Donald W. Reynolds Institute at the University of Missouri. The Reynolds unit that did the work is being dissolved, so ASNE will need to find a new partner to do the surveys and statistical analysis.
It is important to ask each year how many lost positions may be made up by growth in the digital news sector, “and the tricky part is to try to get a handle on those numbers,” Boardman said.
A Pew Research Center study in March estimated a total of 5,000 full-time journalists working for such sites.
But ASNE’s own effort to enlist digital sites as participants in the survey and as members has been only a limited success to date. Organizations with a traditional news and investigative bent have joined, and editors at ProPublica and Texas Tribune are on ASNE’s board. But most of the largest digital news ventures like Huffington Post and Yahoo have not joined.
Boardman said that he is encouraged that the digital sector has participated in ASNE events like a recent “hackathon” in Austin or the upcoming joint convention with the Associated Press Managing Editors in Chicago this September.
My own take is that the continuing editorial job losses steadily erode the coverage of communities newspapers once provided. Boardman made the point that at the Seattle Times, where he was executive editor until last year, and at many other papers, great effort has been made to conserve front-line reporting and editing jobs with copy editing and layout jobs taking a bigger proportion of the hits.
And editors will concede privately that cost control pressures made them reorganize functions that could be done more efficiently and move out some less productive employees whose jobs were secure in flush times.
It is still an open question, however, whether the mix of jobs at digital-only sites makes up for what has been lost as newspapers (and magazines as well) get smaller.
Traditionalists will contend that trading an experienced government accountability reporter for, say, a listicle producer, is a net loss to the news media’s civic function. Digital enthusiasts might counter that the infusion of programmers and other technologists into the news industry is doing more to expand volume of coverage and its reach than the duplicative news production teams at individual newspapers ever did.
I’ll agree with Boardman that the next few years ought to be a time for better estimates of the total number of news professionals at work, how many are “feet on the street” and how the focus of the content they produce is changing.