Layoffs in the Newspaper Industry
What’s ahead in the job market?
As the U.S. economy slows down, journalists find their work – and sometimes their jobs — being sacrificed in the name of greater profits. Why are things so bad now — and what toll has bottom-line thinking already taken?
Gary Green was laid off from his staff photographer job at the Akron Beacon Journal. Gary Green starting pounding the pavement. And Gary Green discovered that, at a time of unprecedented prosperity and record low unemployment numbers, things weren’t looking too good at newspapers around the country.
“I’ve essentially contacted every director of photography at every major metro in the country,” he said. “I’ve applied coast-to-coast, north-to-south. And I would say the majority of the newspapers — 80 to 90 percent of the papers I’ve talked to — have hiring freezes.”
But that was all right — he found 20 open jobs and sent out his portfolio and resume.
“Then sixteen of those positions were frozen,” he said. “I have one or two leads, but if they don’t come through …. Because the way the job market is right now, I feel I might be out of work for a very long time.”
Green worked for the Beacon Journal for 19 months and 28 days. In that time, he won awards from The Associated Press, the Ohio News Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association.
“I admire him for his professional work,” said Paul Tople, the Beacon Journal’s Pulitzer-winning assistant chief photographer. “I’d hate to lose someone as talented as him because the quality of the Akron Beacon Journal has been in its people. As we continue to lose people, it’s going to be harder to keep the quality high.”
But Green isn’t the only one who got a pink slip this spring. In addition to nine other journalists from the Beacon Journal, its parent company, Knight Ridder, said that it might have to lay off journalists at other papers as well — such as the San Jose Mercury News. Citing worsening economic conditions, declining revenues and higher printing costs, Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder said the company was taking “exceptional measures” to tighten costs.
Mercury News publisher Jay Harris resigned in protest and, as of this writing, Knight Ridder has backed down on the newsroom layoffs at that paper, though cuts may come elsewhere.
It’s a sign that the industry is too focused on profits, Harris said in a letter to his staff.
“I was stepping down in the hope that doing so will cause them to closely examine the wisdom of the profit targets we’ve been struggling to find a way to meet,” he wrote. “We all know we must make significant adjustments in the face of the currently severe economic downturn. But so far, we have been unable to find a way to meet the new targets without risking significant and lasting harm to the Mercury News — as a journalistic enterprise and as the special place to work that it is.”
But despite the layoffs and hiring freezes, newspapers were among the least hit so far this year — the job loss numbers in newsrooms pale in comparison to those at online publications, a result of the higher emphasis on earnings and the general downturn in dot-com advertising.
The New York Times announced 69 layoffs from its Times Digital properties in January, followed by layoffs at Oxygen Media, Internet.com, and TheStreet.com.
“We’ve definitely seen a downturn in advertising” said boston.com executive news director Eric Bauer, who lost three journalists in the Times Digital cutbacks in January. “We’re tightening our belts and doing what needs to be done.”
And broadcast media have been hit as well — Disney, Time Warner, CNN, NBC, Fox — journalists have been finding themselves out of jobs of all descriptions.
“We’re in the worst employment slump in the news business in a decade,” said Reginald Stuart, former SPJ national president and a corporate recruiter for Knight Ridder. “Today, journalists who are in the business and particularly journalists coming out of school this spring and summer are faced with a double whammy — almost zero employment opportunities in traditional media and no new hiring opportunities in online media.”
There are a couple of reasons for all the doom-and-gloom saying.
In January, newspaper ad revenue declined 1.4 percent, the worst month in eight years. Several media companies issued earnings warnings as a result, including Dow Jones, The New York Times and Knight Ridder.
February saw a further slowdown: Knight Ridder’s total advertising revenue was down 2.7 percent for the month — 3.4 percent below what it was at the same time last year.
It wasn’t alone.
“It looks pretty bad,” said Astrid Garcia, chair of the employee relations committee of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). “I think everybody’s feeling it in the bottom line.”
Even privately owned newspapers such as the St. Petersburg Times have been feeling the economic pinch.
“We are definitely in a period where all of us are having a hard time raising as much revenue as we’d like,” said St. Petersburg Times chairman and editor Andrew Barnes. “We’re in a recession, and it may become a serious one.”
And the renewed emphasis on profits has made several online publications rethink their business strategies. Now, instead of simply being happy with traffic, they want that traffic to pay for itself–and to keep costs to a minimum until it does.
“Most of the media organizations really staffed up aggressively with building online entities,” said Bruce Tulgan, an employment consultant and author of the recently released “Winning the Talent Wars.” “Not only is there less pressure to do that now, but at the same time, a lot of the hopes for revenue from those sources have not been realized.”
However, he cautioned that a lot of the layoffs coverage has been overplayed by the media.
“Layoffs are no higher now than during the strongest years the economy,” he said. “Downsizing has been happening steadily throughout the economic boom.”
Meanwhile, national unemployment numbers continue to remain near record lows, he said.
Although some types of ad spending are down — such as help wanted ads — advertising in general still seems strong. The Newspaper Association of America predicts a 5.1 percent increase this year over last year in advertiser spending for newspapers. This was the same amount that advertising increased last year.
And even if advertising is down for some newspapers, and some costs up, it doesn’t mean that newsrooms should have to pay for that, critics say.
“If we’re only listening to Wall Street, we’re going to be cutting every time the revenue is down,” said Luther Jackson, executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild. “And ultimately you cut into your franchise, and that impacts the quality of the paper long term.”
This might be a good time to examine the whole notion of profits for a news organization, said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.
“I think we should be talking about the economic models that underpin the practice of journalism,” he said. “We should be talking about what constitutes a fair and reasonable profit for media companies. We should be talking about where the primary loyalties of media companies should lie and what happens when maximizing shareholder return on investment comes in conflict with the ability to maximize public service.”
Both at the Mercury News and at the Beacon Journal, journalists pointed to the fact that both papers were profitable — even very profitable — at the time the cuts were made.
“We’re going to have 10 people leave from our newsroom and their last day of work will be this Friday,” said Dennis Balogh, editorial artist at the Akron Beacon Journal. “It’s devastating. Knight Ridder is not losing money. The Akron Beacon Journal is not losing money. Yet there are cuts being made.”
“There’s never been any layoffs here in the history of the newspaper,” said Stephanie Warsmith, chair of the Akron unit of the Newspaper Guild and a Beacon Journal reporter. “And there have been other economic downturns and difficult times. This is a disturbing trend, not only here but throughout the newspaper industry – that the product and the people have to suffer for profits. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it seems to defeat the purpose to hurt the product, to hurt the people who produce the product for the sake of a few dollars.”
But Knight Ridder officials said that profit numbers — which range from 22 to 29 percent for the newspaper industry — can be misleading.
“I think that we have to operate the business prudently, and what is one person’s view of too many profits may look to be a very different picture in a year or two if a business is not managed prudently,” said Knight Ridder spokesman Polk Laffoon. “What can look like too many profits one year, can look to be something very different in another year.”
Meanwhile, many newspapers have been trying to cushion their editorial employees from the effects of the economic downturn.
“If there is downsizing of the workforce, a lot of papers are doing it through attrition,” said the NAA’s Garcia.
The Knight Ridder chain is one example of that.
“It’s been exaggerated what’s going on here,” said Knight Ridder spokesman Polk Laffoon. “Some newspapers have hiring freezes. In very rare instances, a newspaper has announced some modest number of layoffs. But we are not happy with the prospect of layoffs and would try to hold those to an absolute minimum.”
But regardless of how humane the cutbacks may be, journalists still suffer.
“The rank-and-file journalists that I talk to are quite concerned about quality, about the volume of work as a result of hiring freezes … and there’s a fear that these changes will be permanent rather than temporary,” said William W. Sutton Jr., president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Even at newspapers with no layoffs, the possibility of bad news is making journalists more hesitant about their prospects — and less likely to think about leaving.
“The climate is definitely changing,” said Suzanne King, a telecommunications reporter at the Kansas City Star. “I don’t think that people have the sense that there are 10 jobs out there waiting for them if they want them.”
Some good journalists may even be considering leaving the profession, said Poynter Institute’s Clark. “I think we’re going through a kind of meaning of life crisis. It’s been going on for some time, but this economic downturn has heated up the debate.”