Newspaper layoffs surged in 2020, according to a new analysis by Pew Research Center.
Industry experts tell me the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, adding urgency to the need for federal relief before the local-news death spiral accelerates further.
Cuts were broader than in 2019, even though readership soared as Americans turned to trusted news outlets for pandemic information.
There are bright spots. Some newspapers found ways to avoid layoffs and even grow. The Seattle Times is one, thanks in part to generous community support enabling it to hire more journalists.
But the overall situation is worsening.
Among large-market newspapers, more than half cut staff. A third of mid-size papers had layoffs. The rate of layoffs at small outlets held steady and increased at all-digital outlets, where 18% cut jobs.
One in 10 large papers had multiple layoffs last year. About half that had layoffs last year also had layoffs in 2019, Pew found.
“As long as revenue keeps falling — and it has been falling pretty sharply for years and years and years now — we don’t really hit bottom, you’ve got to have expense reductions that are proportionate,” said analyst Rick Edmonds at The Poynter Institute.
Ad revenue will rebound, but Edmonds doesn’t expect it will “anywhere near cover” what was lost in 2020.
Paycheck-protection loans helped nearly 3,000 mostly smaller papers retain jobs as of last fall, Pew found. But that program expires May 31.
One recipient was Sound Publishing, a Canadian-owned chain with dozens of papers in Washington. It received a loan to potentially retain 366 jobs. It wasn’t enough to prevent it from laying off 20% of its workers.
That included Samantha Pak, who rose from reporter to an editor of seven Eastside papers before getting sacked.
“I’ve wanted to do journalism since I was in middle school, I was always, like, ‘this is what I want to be when I grow up,’ ” she told me last week.
Pak now writes for Yolk.tv, a digital media startup, and freelances for The Northwest Asian Weekly.
It’s great Pak and others found other jobs. But perpetual layoffs and talent churn take a toll on local news.
“There’s a lack of consistency in reporting, a lack of willingness if you find another job to go back to what was so fraught,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a Northwestern University journalism professor. “In the end, that all has an effect on the amount of news that is produced.”
Effects of the 2020 downturn for newspapers may continue growing, similar to the way the 2008 recession’s full effects “weren’t felt until two or three years out,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy led research documenting the spread of “news deserts” across the U.S. It found 2,100 newspapers disappeared between 2004 and 2020, leaving at least 1,800 communities with no local news outlet.
Over that same period, more than half of newspaper newsroom jobs disappeared.
The loss of reporting capacity is worse than it appears in the job-loss tallies, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said in a recent speech. (I discussed this in last week’s Voices for a Free Press newsletter.)
That’s because newsrooms added new crafts, such as digital audience specialists, needed for their evolution, Baquet explained.
“But these changes also mean that the average newsroom has even fewer reporters than the numbers show, fewer people on the ground, fewer people making phone calls, fewer people banging on doors … ,” he said.
The New York Times is atypical. A 52% increase in digital subscriptions helped it invest heavily in its newsroom last year, despite declining revenue and net income, according to the publicly traded company’s fiscal year report.
Another unique organization finding ways to invest is WEHCO Media, a newspaper chain based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. pioneered a model for transitioning to digital publishing by providing subscribers with iPads. At several papers, he sold shares locally to finance the equipment.
“I’m trying to find an economic model that makes economic sense to the owners of the newspaper and also to the community,” Hussman Jr. told me.
That’s helped WEHCO hold employment steady and add staff at its flagship Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he said.
Laying off more journalists is “a dead-end road,” Hussman said:
“We can’t survive unless we continue to provide good journalism, good reporting — you need relevant, valuable content for readers.”
Other publishers may be unable to transform as boldly. Reinvention is hard and takes time, especially for small outlets competing with digital giants that don’t play fair and profit from others‘ content.
No wonder thousands of papers closed or sold to national chains extracting value from local communities, not investing more in them.
That’s also why proposals in Congress to help save local journalism — essential infrastructure for democracy — are critical.
One would enable news outlets to collectively negotiate for payment from Google and Facebook. Another would provide tax credits to news subscribers and outlets employing journalists.
These are temporary measures to save jobs as the industry retools. They have bipartisan support but must advance now.
Pew’s report makes it clear that if Congress waits much longer, it will be too late to prevent extinction of America’s local, independent news system.