Get off my dead trees!

Last week, a college friend and I got together for coffee. During the course of about two hours, we noticed several times we had reached the “you kids get off my lawn!” age. As he, too, is a former newspaper reporter, one of those times was our discussion of the newspaper business and the number of people we knew who had been subject to staff layoffs, buyouts or cuts in staff overall. As serendipity will do, the next day I saw a piece at Columbia Journalism Review that reinforced how dramatically newsroom ranks have been decimated.

In June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, “In June 1990, there were nearly 458,000 people employed in the newspaper publishing industry; by March 2016, that figure had fallen to about 183,000, a decline of almost 60 percent.” The BLS noted that employment in Internet publishing and broadcasting increased from 29,700 to nearly 198,000 during that same period. Note that these figures are for all sorts of jobs in newspaper publishing. Thus, the CJR article observed that that growth in online publishing “pales in comparison to the number of journalists laid off in the newspaper industry. And in recent years, the number of journalists at digital-only publishers seems to have actually plateaued.”

When it comes just to news professionals at daily newspapers, the journalism industry long looked to an annual survey by the American Society of News Editors. ASNE’s 2015 survey reported that those employed in news functions at daily newspapers declined from 56,900 in 1990 to 32,900 in 2015, a drop of 42%. Notably, ASNE has stopped estimating the number of journalists working in newsrooms because “the structure of modern newsrooms makes it impractical and error-prone to try to estimate the number of working journalists.” I guess that can happen when an editor becomes a “content strategist,” a reporter an “audience analyst” and a photographer a “consumer experience director.”

While today’s technology may make this sound like lamenting the loss of telegraph operators, there are real world consequences. For example, the number of full-time statehouse reporters working for newspapers dropped 35% between 2003 and 2014. As one observer noted, that means “[t]he public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives.”

Moreover, as of 2014, 20% of all reporting jobs in the country were in DC, LA or New York. This means that citizens outside of these areas — in other words, more than 90% of the population — “have fewer reporters acting as local watchdogs.” “For the first time in American history, we are nearing a point where we will no longer have more than minimal resources (relative to the nation’s size) dedicated to reporting the news.”

I, though, look as much at the human cost as the high-minded ideas. Various commentators have noted that amidst all this “remarkably little attention has been paid to the plight of individual journalists.” As another commentator noted earlier this year, “the tale of today‚Äôs discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes.” Yes, plenty of people feel discarded today.

While not a Luddite, I am a grumpy old man when it comes to the “good old days” of journalism. After all, it would certainly come in handy in an “news” environment populated by ideological websites and social media.

Real journalism can always be identified by the way it makes normal people sometimes feel very uncomfortable about the world.

Charles M. Madigan, “The problem with today’s ‘journalism'”

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