Is There Life after Newspapers? Thousands upon Thousands of Newspaper Journalists Have Lost Their Jobs in Recent Years in Endless Rounds of Layoffs and Buyouts. What Happens in the Next Act?

By Hodierne, Robert | American Journalism Review, February-March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Is There Life after Newspapers? Thousands upon Thousands of Newspaper Journalists Have Lost Their Jobs in Recent Years in Endless Rounds of Layoffs and Buyouts. What Happens in the Next Act?


Hodierne, Robert, American Journalism Review


Erica Smith has a job as a graphics designer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At least for now. There are few journalists in America who know as well as Smith how tenuous a steady newspaper job is these days. For the last year and a half, she has spent 10 or 12 hours a week at an old oak table in her sixth-floor loft with her Mac laptop, a bottle of Pepsi and her cat, tallying the fallen: 18 more jobs cut at the Tallahassee Democrat, 15 at the Desert Sun, 13 at the Jackson Sun. And the list goes on and on. Eight at the Visalia Times-Delta, 12 at the Statesman Journal, 125 at the Virginian-Pilot, 60 at the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Smith tallied 15,554 newspaper job cuts for 2008, and she was still updating in January. Her research is artfully rendered on a Web page called "paper cuts" (graphicdesignr.net/papercuts/) and appears to be the only such comprehensive list.

"I started out because I was curious about the number of cuts. Now it's because I have too many friends who've been laid off," says Smith, 32, who got into the newspaper business right after graduating from Northwest Missouri State University.

Her tally, which she builds from news releases, wire reports, blogs and tips from colleagues, includes all newspaper jobs, not just those in the newsroom. But she estimates half of those 15,000 cuts were journalists. And that means the newsroom population of American papers shrank by about 15 percent last year, down from 52,000 at the start of the year. That's three times larger than the single greatest annual newsroom employment decrease since 1978, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors began making estimates of the editorial workforce.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But it's worse than that. Smith cautions that her count actually understates the total because many newspapers don't announce layoffs. What's more, her total does not include jobs lost through attrition.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' count for all newspaper jobs--from reporter to delivery truck driver--shows the payroll shrinking from 336,000 at the start of the year to 313,600 through October, a drop of 22,400 positions.

Smith, a cheerful woman who laughs easily, finds this all a bit depressing. "I can only update so many at a time without wanting to jump off the ninth floor of the building I live in," she says, with not a trace of a laugh. The 2,000 layoffs that Gannett announced during the holiday season did nothing to improve her mood and kept her swamped for a week.

All of which raises a question: What happens to all of those laid-off and bought-out journalists? Is there life after newspapers? To find out, I posted a questionnaire about the fate of those who have lost their newspaper jobs.

A word of caution here: This was not a scientific poll, because there is no comprehensive list of those who've been laid off from which to draw a random sample. Instead, AJR posted a link to the questionnaire on its homepage (ajr.org). I advertised on Journalismjobs.com and posted word on every online venue I could find aimed at journalists, including Jim Romenesko's popular blog on the Poynter Institute Web site (poynter.org).

In the end, 595 people who say they left newspaper editorial jobs in the last decade under circumstances that were not totally voluntary filled out the questionnaire. Since this wasn't a random sample but rather a self-selected group, there's no way to know whether this group accurately represents the entire universe of people who have been forced out of news-papering. But it offers some interesting insights.

Many of the respondents have found new jobs. It's too early to tell about those who lost their jobs within the past year, but for those who did so between 1999 and 2007:

* Just under 36 percent said they found a new job in less than three months. Add those who say they freelance full time, and the total jumps to 53 percent.

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Is There Life after Newspapers? Thousands upon Thousands of Newspaper Journalists Have Lost Their Jobs in Recent Years in Endless Rounds of Layoffs and Buyouts. What Happens in the Next Act?
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