Journalism’s profound decline at the local level

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Although jobs for reporters and correspondents fell 27 percent from 2008 to 2018, the losses were all local as reporting jobs rose 16 percent in the nation’s 10 largest metros. Let’s explore this stunning statistic.

Newspaper employment’s startling decline was cited by my Beacon colleague, Alex Zapesochny, in his discussion of a GateHouse-Gannett merger posted on July 29 : The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that national employment in newspaper publishing fell 64 percent from 2001 to 2018 (and 45 percent from 2008 to 2018).

Information technology has significantly reduced the number of labor hours required to produce a traditional newspaper. Media outlets moving online eliminate all jobs associated with printing and physical distribution. 

Newspapers’ financial foundation has also been devastated: Classifieds and local advertising have been displaced by Craigslist, eBay and direct email marketing. Finally, the internet facilitated an explosion in “new media,” news outlets untethered to traditional newspapers, periodicals and television.

Core of journalism is reporting

Yet the beating heart of journalism is neither distribution nor ad sales. It’s reporting. 

The chart above captures employment for the newspaper publishing industry, which includes people involved in administration, printing, distribution, information technology as well as people who report and analyze the news. BLS also publishes annual figures on occupations, however. The Occupational Employment Series estimates that the number employed as “reporters and correspondents” (both by newspapers and other industries) fell 27 percent from 2008 to 2018, much less than the 45 percent decline in newspaper publishing as an industry.

Local reporting bears burden of journalism’s transformation

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill reported in 2018 that one in five newspapers closed in the previous 15 years and that half of the nation’s counties were left with only a single newspaper. Two hundred had none at all. UNC’s report explores other measures of media vitality, including the increasing share of surviving papers that have become shells of themselves, what UNC call’s “ghost” newspapers.

The precipitous decline in local coverage is also captured in the OES metro stats. Outside the nation’s 10 largest metro areas, jobs for reporters and correspondents fell 34 percentbetween 2008 and 2018 while jobs in the top 10 grew 16 percent. 

Rochester stats

Rochester’s newspaper publishing industry has fallen prey to the same trends. Although the decline is more irregular, total industry employment in 2018 is nearly 80 percent below that of 2008. The OES tells a similar story for the employment of reporters and correspondents: Rochester employment in this occupation fell an estimated 41 percent over the period. 

What’s been lost?

Although the OES figures are survey-based estimates and have not been adjusted for changes in metro definitions and rankings, the trend toward what UNC calls the “expanding news desert” has profound consequences for the nation. How many city councils, county legislatures, town councils and village boards conduct business absent the watchful eye of a local reporter? Can reporters clustered in our nation’s largest media markets capture grassroots trends without a network of local journalists upon whom they can rely? What are the consequences of reporters and correspondents moving directly from journalism school to major markets without first serving an apprenticeship in Peoria, Little Rock or Rochester?

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

6 thoughts on “Journalism’s profound decline at the local level

  1. We are what we learn. If the “truth” is contested by killing the messenger (local reporting) by conglomerations buying up small papers and reducing local reporting, how is that different than Walmart etc? If we are trained by ads (electronically induced) what do we expect? Who here (with exceptions of perhaps Beacon) attends any local meetings. Most images show plenty of seats still available. Small shops, involvement etc. . Love what UAW Local 1097 President Dan Maloney recently said about Democracy (I will paraphrase) — when you buy from countries that sponsor terrorism, guess what? When you buy from anti Democratic countries and from companies that flock there to take advantage of terrible wages and poor environmental policies, just to save a buck — guess what? Maloney and others are right, We have much to learn about how to keep our Democracy safe. Invest at home (local papers, news and products). Support grass root work (Beacon) when you can.

  2. Loss of local newspapers results in a weakened sense of community, diminished regional pride of place and wider, more flagrant political fraud without the “sunshine” of journalists watchdogs.
    But like most things, one must follow the money trail. More newspapers (and news media!) are concentrated in fewer hands, many of those multi-national corporations. They are not accountable to anybody and their goal: the bottom line which is mostly measured in advertising dollars. Ergo, newspapers pull out of communities where there is greater poverty and less education among its citizens.( Advertising bucks are better spent on print media according to a Harvard study. Readers spend more time – statistically – on “paper” than on “electronic media”) But it’s the snake eating its tail. Newspapers have barely tried to find ways to increase readership among minority groups then they’ve pulled out of those communities because of lack of readers and that relates to declining numbers to entice advertisers. Are we truly back to issues of race…again?!

  3. It,s interesting to see the variations in the rates of decline in different small cities. We were pleasantly surprised at the time of our move to Sarasota FL that the local Herald Tribune, a Gatehouse paper was so good. There,s plenty of local coverage, state and federal coverage. The local editorial staff serves the traditional vital role of watching local government and keeping the public informed in a market smaller than Rochester.

    It,s a stark contrast to the decay and decline of the D & C that has dramatically shrunk local coverage while increasing irrelevant coverage of remote parts of the state, adding big regular historical articles on what Rochester was like in the past.
    A recent addition is a series of articles on Bills games played years ago!

    The function/role of helping keep citizen voters informed and report on any governmental indiscretions is no longer able to be a primary mission given the terrible undertow of the business model.

    Is a not for profit business model a part of the future of local newspapers?

    Public (not for profit radio and TV) seem to have a vibrant,credible place
    in offering local state and national news very effectively
    in America?

  4. This situation has been troubling for quite some time . I have had a number of emails back and forth with Mike Kilian , Editor of the Democrat & Chronicle , on this issue . I have essentially received only the Gannett company line in return . I have interacted with most of their journalists over the past 30 years or so . I was with most of the remaining D&C writers last Friday as they wished Dave Andreatta well at City Newspaper . I asked where Erica Bryant was and was told she left two months ago and is in Florida . She never hesitated to use me as a source on the working poor , minimum wage , and Fight for Fifteen .
    The loss for local markets like Rochester is not just local news . We used to get to read so many great nationally syndicated columnists on a daily basis , but no more . I subscribe to the email NY Times , other electronic publications , web sites , and electronic newsletters of respected experts , but it is not the same . Always a lover of books , I must buy more and more books to read many of these former news journalists .
    With so much untruth and fakery on social media I think news has an opportunity to expand ” search for the truth ” journalism . Gannett and Editor Kilian disagree . I seek out
    journalism , but how many make a strong effort? I did not know about the Beacon until a friend sent it to me earlier this year . Agree or not I always read you in the RBJ , as well as Smriti , Will , Paul , and others .
    We are in a time that just because everyone is entitled to an opinion , that opinion is valid even if based on bad information and/or ignorance . The anonymity of social media encourages the misinformation and it is accepted by the less informed . I am old enough to remember watching “See It Now” with Edward R. Murrow , and his special “Harvest of Shame ” with my Father . I remember when national TV news anchors and reporters did not all look like movie stars . I grew up with Cronkite , Huntley , Brinkley , Wallace , and so many more . I may be an old fool longing for the past , but I can’t help believing the crisis you write about in journalism and newspapers is also part of the crisis in our democracy and the weakening of democratic institutions .
    Great column .

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