June 25, 2013

The American Society of News Editors released its annual newsroom census today and found an unexpected acceleration of job losses. Roughly 2,600 full-time professional editorial jobs at newspapers disappeared in 2012, a 6.4 percent decline compared to 2011’s total, leaving industry news employment at 38,000.

That brings the number of reporters, editors and other journalists down almost one-third from a peak of 56,400 in 2000 and down 30.9 percent since 2006. The greatest losses — 13,500 in all — came in the recession years of 2007-2009. But a modest stabilization in 2010 and 2011, when losses slowed to 900 jobs over the two years, now appears to be over.

YEAR         TOTAL        GAIN/LOSS
2007           52,600            -2,400
2008           46,700             -5,900
2009            41,500             -5,200
2010            41,600               +100
2011             40,600             -1,000
2012             38,000              -2,600


The census began in 1978 to track progress in making newspaper staff and leadership more diverse. As in recent years, the percentage of minority news staffers held steady at 12.4 percent — essentially showing minorities losing newspaper jobs at the same rate as others.

The census covered calendar year 2012, but the cuts have clearly continued this year.  Recently, the Chicago Sun Times dismissed its entire 28-person photo staff. The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Oregonian are cutting print newsroom staff, as parent Advance Publications did at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans last year.

Much coverage of the financial crunch that precipitated the cuts has focused on metro newspapers, which must serve an audience and advertisers spread over a large geographical region while facing tough broadcast and digital competitors.

However, this year’s survey found newspapers with circulations of more than 250,000 reporting slight increases in jobs on average. The big losses came at newspapers with circulation between 25,000 and 250,000.

How ASNE got its figures

The census, previously an in-house ASNE project, was conducted this year and last year by a unit of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, and fully funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

The procedure involves collecting results and grouping them by bands of circulation, then projecting numbers for those papers not reporting based on the average for the group. Multiple reminder e-mails and follow-up phone calls aim at getting reports from papers that didn’t respond to the initial request.

For several years ASNE has accepted online-only news organizations as members and invited them to participate in the survey. But response has been spotty, leaving ASNE with too little information to estimate how many of the lost newspaper jobs may have been made up by growth in the digital sector.

Also this year, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times and a number of other large papers didn’t compete surveys. And as the industry delivers content on a number of platforms and many large chains consolidate copy editing and design at remote centers, an accurate count of jobs becomes more difficult.

By my reading, besides the L.A. Times, the list of the missing includes The Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant, Sun-Sentinel (of Fort Lauderdale) and Newport News Daily Press — five of the eight Tribune Co. papers.

Historically Gannett has been a very strong supporter of ASNE’s diversity initiative.  But besides the absence of USA Today, several other large Gannett metros — The Arizona Republic, Indianapolis Star and Cincinnati Enquirer — didn’t report results.

Other prominent papers not reporting include Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, The Miami Herald, The Times-Picayune, the New York Post and The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

With 978 of 1,382 dailies responding, however, the basic finding of a bigger job decline seems solid.

Clarifying gray areas

I have asked ASNE to double-check its list and will post an update if any of the missing papers failed to show up on the list as a result of clerical error.

“Who counts as a journalist now is complicated,” said Adam Maksl, one of the academics who oversees the work. For this year, Maksl said in a phone interview, papers with regional editing centers were left to make their own call about counting their share of these groups as part of their own news staff.

Clarifying that and other gray areas remains “a challenge for the future,” Maksl said. There probably remains some ambiguity about who in the newspaper’s digital operations (a code-writer, for instance) should count as a journalist. Also, Maksl noted that clerks have traditionally been excluded from the count, but in downsized newsrooms many with that job classification are heavily involved in producing journalism.

ASNE doesn’t include wire services in the survey. Several, notably Bloomberg and Reuters, have been growing editorial staff over the last six years as newspapers decline. (Both Bloomberg and Reuters are sponsors of this week’s ASNE convention in Washington, D.C.).

The digital sector eludes any exact estimate, though some entrants over the last several years — Politico, the Huffington Post and AOL’s Patch — by now have staffs the size of a big-city newspaper.

Less is less

For all the complicating factors, count me as surprised that the reported job losses were so high. As co-author of the newspaper chapter for Pew’s annual State of the News Media report, published in March, I had estimated the loss would be at least as great as 2011’s 1,000. But I didn’t expect more than double that.

I would characterize 2012, looking out to 2013, as a year the industry realized that gains from new digital revenue streams will be slow in coming and print advertising is less likely to stabilize than it is to continue its decline. And for now at least, the new activities won’t be as profitable as the legacy ad business was. Despite a revenue boost from digital pay plans, all that would argue for continued cost-cutting, including more layoffs of news staff.

Thus the report raises some painful, if familiar, questions. What won’t be covered because newspapers have less staff to deploy? How much more can be eliminated without devaluing the paper’s report (on several platforms) and thus its appeal to advertisers?

Working smarter and producing better digital presentations of stories and ads will help, but I am left again thinking less is less.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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