Why journalism layoff season could be worse in an election year
As it has for the past few years, the three-month span between September and December has brought news of job cuts at several news organizations looking to prune staff before the holidays.
The Wall Street Journal, Gannett, the New York Daily News, Univision and Bloomberg have all already reduced staff or are planning to do so in the coming months. This comes on the heels of similar cutting in 2015 at many of America's national and regional news organizations.
Several factors make this year particularly ripe for downsizing. For newspapers, especially, 2016 has been a bleak year for print advertising. As Macy's and other department stores pulled their business, newspapers saw a worse-than-usual summer slump.
When newspapers reported their earnings in the fall, prospects hadn't improved. Many, including The New York Times, Gannett and McClatchy posted worse-than-expected results, with advertising shifting away from print and toward digital juggernauts like Facebook and Google. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of ad blocking has imperiled digital display ads.
The higher-than-average newsroom budgets associated with election coverage are also contributing factors. Both Bloomberg and Univision waited until after the election to prune staffers, making moves to right-size their newsrooms after a big and lucrative news event had passed. It's possible, with advertising waning and reporting budgets swollen, news executives might decide to cut back before the new year begins.
But end-of-year culling is nothing new for media companies, which often make cuts toward the end of the year for budgeting and public relations reasons. A year ago, my colleague Rick Edmonds broke down the political and business calculus.
Why now is straightforward. Companies do their budget planning for next year in the fall. If the numbers indicate the necessity of shrinking the newsroom, sooner is better than later. The savings are greater, the bad press of firing people during the holidays is avoided and, especially for public companies, the cost of severance payments gets deducted from current earnings rather than hanging over the new year.
Why so many cuts in 2015 is also straightforward. This has been a worse year, not a stabilizing one, for advertising. Digital and other new revenues are not making up those losses. As new strategies (like paid digital subscriptions or contract printing) settle in for a few years, they still generate revenue but not growing revenue.
The doom and gloom in early autumn may not be a harbinger of further cutting across the industry. But if current trends continue, many newsroom managers could have trouble squaring their costs with their incomes — especially with deep benches of newly hired political scribes.