Layoffs and local journalism

There were 2.9 million Americans filing for unemployment for the first time this week, raising the total to 36.5 million unemployed since the beginning of the outbreak. 

This has been a tough week for the media world, as publications like Conde Nast and BuzzFeed, and agencies like VaynerMedia, Publicis and Weber Shandwick all laid off staffers. In filing documents, ViacomCBS said it has laid off 450 people since January. 

Uzabase, which bought Quartz in 2018, said today sales have dropped 54 percent, and it plans on reducing headcount by 40 percent. 

This week, the L.A. Times shifted to a 32-hour work-sharing week for reporters, which it says will save 84 jobs from being terminated. Other media unions are trying to emulate this, so far with little success.

The loss of journalism jobs at Quartz, Meredith, Conde and Buzzfeed and every other media company means that reporters will now find themselves in other occupations. If history is any indication, they’ll end up in public relations or marketing. 

After the 2007-09 media bloodletting, we watched the shift from journalism to PR; there are now 6 PR people for every journalist. Looking at life through rose-colored lenses, this should mean that there are many companies that have a better messaging and communications strategy. It should mean better stories. Looking at life through realistic lenses, this has not been the case. My inbox is a depot of shitty pitches. 

What this shift has meant: fewer people holding the powerful accountable. And now that roughly 30,000 journalists are out of jobs, the problem becomes more acute. 

In 2019, the Brookings Institute put out a report titled “Why America must revive its local newsrooms.”(It’s worth a read if you haven’t read it already.) One eye-popping stat: more than 65 million Americans live in counties with one (or none) local newspaper. PBS, reporting on a PEN research report, said that 200 counties in America have zero newspapers. 

Talking to the Star Tribune today in a story about Twin Cities newspapers shutting down, media analyst Owen Van Essen said,

“There are 200 to 300 small, weekly newspapers that will not be around by the end of the year,” nationally. And as many as 500 newspapers will reduce their publication schedule this year, he said.

Fewer people are covering city council debates on how towns are spending tax-payer money.

Fewer people are covering school board meetings on how curriculum is decided, or which textbooks are used.

Fewer people are covering how factories are treating employees.

Fewer people are holding executives accountable for price-gauging, price-fixing, and a litany of bad behaviors. 

Fewer checks on our government.

The PEN report found (among other things):

  • “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”

  • “With the shift to digital, the business model for for-profit local journalism has collapsed, as circulation patterns have been upended and tech giants, notably the digital duopoly of Google and Facebook, have siphoned the majority of advertising revenue for content paid for and produced by news outlets.”

  • “Local newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations are being bought and consolidated by hedge funds and media conglomerates and often subjected to relentless cost cutting—leading to coverage that is more national, less diverse, and, in some cases, more politically polarized.”

Both the PEN report and the Brookings Institute study chart out the loss of ad revenue from newspapers over the decades. 

Lots of ink has been spilled about the loss of newspaper ad revenue (Nieman Lab has done great work contextualizing this over the years - 2015,2016,2017,  2018,2019, 2020) and, as we know, the bulk of that local ad revenue now goes to Facebook and/or Google and not the local paper. 

So we find ourselves in a strange situation: the local businesses that pay for ads in local papers are closed because of COVID, having a downward effect on the remaining local papers/alt-weeklies, which result in mass layoffs. The New York Times pegs the number of media layoffs (local and national) at around 36,000.

Ad revenue isn’t returning anytime soon (as I argued recently though, it would be in everyone’s - brand and publisher - best interest to start spending). Events may not either. Maybe local and national publications will follow in the footsteps of their B2B cousins and offer up awards for some quick cash injections. But will local businesses pay for awards? And it would be a bad world if newspapers gave out awards to the very people -- businesses and politicians -- they cover. 

One potential model: philanthropy journalism. The Guardian reports today that a group of philanthropists is “hoping to turn” the Baltimore Sun, owned by Tribune Publishing, which itself is owned by PE firm Alden Capital, a company that is infamous for gutting media companies, into a non-profit.

“Behind the scenes a local group is hoping to buy the 183-year-old newspaper in an attempt to free the Sun from further downsizing and cement its future.”

News is not a commodity, though it is often framed by media buyers as such. Journalism is foundational to our democracy, providing a conduit for a better-informed citizenry; that whole “democracy dies in darkness” thing. 

We are at our best when we have more information, which may be why the corrupt lambastes the media as “fake news.” 

The Rolling Stones, “Yesterday’s Papers”

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Some interesting links:

  • My must-read of the day: The prophecies of Q (The Atlantic)

  • Quarantined with a ghost? It’s scary! (New York Times)

  • Americans think they are better at social-distancing than their neighbors (Quartz)

  • McDonald’s is ponying up about a month's worth of marketing spending to boost its brand voice (AdAge)

  • Snapchat preps young users to vote in November (Axios)

  • TikTok Still Violating Children's Privacy, Watchdogs Tell FTC (MediaPost)