The pandemic led to newsroom furloughs. Then protests started. Are reporters coming back?

We asked. Some answered. Here’s what we found out.

June 3, 2020

Around 4 in the morning on May 31, after another night of walking miles with protesters in Memphis, documenting how the police treated (and sometimes mistreated) them and later learning of another incident, Commercial Appeal reporter Desiree Stennett tweeted this:

“Right now we can REALLY see what it means for a community when their journalists are forced to take furloughs. It means I can’t go to keep watch at the 201 Poplar. I can’t be there for my community. I hate it. Let @gannett know what it means to you to not have me there.”

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, furloughs, layoffs and closures took local journalists in the U.S. away from the critical work they provide. Add to those losses the 56% of newspaper jobs lost in the past decade, according to Pew Research.

Then, add in ongoing protests around the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Who’s left to document what’s happening?

Poynter reached out to several news organizations and newsrooms that announced furloughs. Some have delayed them. Others say it’s up to the individual newsrooms. One didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the newsrooms quoted here, Poynter has reached out to Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group, which owns 13 publications in eight states, including The Denver Post and the (St. Paul, Minnesota) Pioneer Press. We’ll update this story if they respond.

How has your newsroom handled this? Let us know. 

By the way, mid-morning on June 1, Stennett, the Memphis reporter, tweeted that her furlough had been delayed but she was taking the day off. Within hours, though, she was back at work.

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“Now is not the time to step back, but to lean into this reporting.”

On Monday, McClatchy president and CEO Craig Forman announced a new one-week furlough in a company-wide memo shared with Poynter. McClatchy owns 30 publications in 14 states.

“We are excluding most colleagues in Production and all colleagues in News from this furlough because together, as ‘first-responders,’ in so many ways, they fulfill vital civic functions, especially during a pandemic and continued and ongoing protests. Both of these evolving situations have an important impact on our communities,” Forman wrote. “Now is not the time to step back, but to lean into this reporting.”

Gannett, which implemented layoffs after merging with GateHouse Media and furloughs because of the pandemic, told Poynter a few journalists have been pulled from furloughs to cover protests.

“We deeply appreciate our journalists, who are working under extremely difficult circumstances to report on the unrest across the nation,” Amalie Nash, vice president of local news for the USA Today Network, told Poynter via a spokesperson. “They have been out reporting at protests in their communities, and we’ve sent journalists to cities like Minneapolis, Chicago and Miami. As we strive to balance the financial pressures driven by a global pandemic, we are in a better position than some other organizations in that we can move our resources around as needed by bringing in journalists from nearby newsrooms to bolster staffing. We understand our journalists who are on furlough don’t want to be on the sidelines during this important coverage, which speaks to their dedication and commitment to their communities. It’s commendable. In a few cases, we have pulled journalists off of furlough to ensure our coverage needs in a community are met.”

One of those journalists, investigative reporter Adam Tamburin, tweeted about the change.

Lee Enterprises, which owns publications in 25 states, instituted furloughs previously. Spokesperson Charles Arms told Poynter via email “Any decisions to delay or cancel furloughs would be made by local management.”

At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a Lee newsroom, editor Gilbert Bailon told Poynter in an email, “The furloughs have been done mostly as planned with a few people delaying their furloughs because of breaking news. We have redeployed some staff from other departments to assist with the Metro news team covering the protests and the ongoing story of the pandemic. Arrival of several interns also have helped with many demands.”

Tegna, which owns 62 local TV stations in 27 states (including Minneapolis) plus Washington DC, instituted furloughs previously. Demetrios Karoutsos, a Tegna spokesperson, told Poynter in an email, “TEGNA employees have been asked to take a one-week furlough between April and June. Our stations’ general managers have broad discretion to manage their teams and determine what’s best for the coverage.”

Tribune Publishing, which owns nine newsrooms in seven states, including the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, previously implemented furloughs and pay cuts. Max Reinsdorf, Tribune Publishing’s chief of staff, told Poynter this in an email: “Our newsrooms have worked hard to schedule furloughs in ways that afford us the most flexibility and minimize disruptions in news coverage. We will continue to do that over the coming weeks of the furlough period. We do not anticipate widespread cancellations of furloughs given the severe ad revenue declines we are trying to address.”

We checked in with one more newsroom in a city that’s grappling with protests, the Los Angeles Times. The LA Times had furloughs and pay cuts, and that hasn’t changed.

“Nothing has changed in the work hours for Guild employees since we negotiated a reduction in hours,” Colleen Shalby, a reporter and LA Times Guild steward, told Poynter in an email. ”We’re all still working a 32-hour work week that includes a one-day furlough. I think we’d all like to be covering this moment as much as possible, but the current situation definitely feels like a better alternative to layoffs or having to take a weeks-long furlough.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this story miscounted the number of stations TEGNA owns. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error. 

Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.