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News Fails to Report What’s Up With News

Billings, Montana

You probably haven’t heard much lately about newspaper layoffs. That could lead you to believe that the worst is over. You would be wrong.

Layoffs continue at a rapid pace. But the news isn’t getting out.

I got a refresher course on this issue last week when I was preparing for an interview with Brian Kahn, who talked to me and Ed Kemmick for an upcoming (but as yet unscheduled) episode of “Home Ground” on Last Best News. The show airs at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Yellowstone Public Radio.

For research, I turned to the usual suspects. But it turns out that I Want Media, a daily roundup of media news, went dark in 2014. Paper Cuts, a blog devoted to just what its name sounds like, hasn’t posted since 2012. Newsosaur hasn’t posted in more than a year. Lee Watch, which once kept track of news in Lee Enterprises, Montana’s dominant newspaper owner, hasn’t published since 2010.

Jim Romenesko, once the nation’s go-to guy for all things media, has retired, although he still tweets occasionally. It was Romenesko who passed along a priceless reader comment in response to a hopeful column in the Lee-owned St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Lee’s 2011 bankruptcy: “This is akin to saying, ‘After the Titanic hit bottom, it quit sinking.’”

Even the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which used to keep track of this stuff, gave up last year. In part, ASNE said, it stopped its annual count because so many newspaper jobs in graphics and design have been outsourced elsewhere, even to other countries, that it’s hard to know who counts as an employee anymore.

When Gannett, which owns the Great Falls Tribune, went through a round of layoffs in May, it declined to comment. McClatchy, another major newspaper owner, did the same thing in the same month, prompting the Columbia Journalism Review to ask staffers at affected papers to contact the magazine.

“The number of journalists communities are losing—an important local story and increasingly urgent question for the media’s role in civic life—is anyone’s guess,” CJR’s David Uberti wrote.

The Tribune, to its credit, did announce five layoffs in October. Those included Jenn Rowell, who has since started The Electric, an online news site covering Great Falls.

But I could find no mention of the effects, if any, of the latest round. Nor could I successfully Google the Missoulian to learn about three newsroom positions cut there in January, including longtime sports editor Bob Meseroll.

 I had to get that news from the Missoula Current, which could not get the Missoulian publisher to return its phone calls. The Current also had the only news I have seen about a former Missoulian sports writer who is suing the paper for allegedly imposing job requirements that he could meet only by working unpaid overtime. The publisher didn’t return calls about that either.Even the Billings Gazette went through a recent round of layoffs that, to the best of my Googling ability, remain unreported in its pages. Perhaps that’s because the layoffs included the business reporter who normally would have been assigned to write a layoff story.

Yes, it’s true that newspapers used to report layoffs on the principle that bad news about the paper is just as important to readers as bad news about any other business in town. Those layoff announcements were often cloyingly vague, usually including canned quotes from the publisher about how the “workforce readjustment” was designed to “further enhance our community and meet the needs of our readers.”

That may have been lousy reporting, but at least it was a matter of pride to get the news out there somehow. Pride appears to be a luxury, like retirement plans and overtime pay, that newspapers no longer can afford.

Ken Doctor, who runs the Newsonomics website, estimated last year that about 27,300 journalists still work for daily U.S. newspapers, less than half the number employed in 1990. About 4,000 of those jobs are at just four major papers, which leaves only about 23,000 to cover the rest of the country.

Doctor also says that 90 percent of U.S. daily papers are owned by chains, and three newspaper chains own 25 percent of all U.S. dailies. That wouldn’t sound so bad if it were not also true that chains are now moving toward “mega clustering,” which means that chains are buying up as many papers as they can in a geographic area to share resources and take advantage of economies of scale.

We see that with Lee Enterprises, a modest-sized chain by national standards, but a veritable behemoth in Montana. What looks like a reasonable mix from a national perspective can seem like pure monopoly at the local level.

But aren’t all of those laid-off journalists snapping up jobs at brisk new online publications, such as this one? Not really. The number of journalists at online publishers tripled between 2005 and 2015, mostly on the coasts. But growth appears recently to have plateaued and in any case comes nowhere close to replacing the newspaper jobs lost.

One reason is that Google and Facebook between them pull in about 71 percent of all online ad revenues, leaving little for anybody else. Alan Mutter of the University of California at Berkeley says, “There’s just more content running around in search of advertising than there is advertising dollars that can support that content.”

The grim outlook causes journalists to turn increasingly toward stories that draw the greatest number of reader hits, not necessarily give them information they need to be informed citizens.

“Data have turned journalism into a commodity, something to be marketed, tested, calibrated,” writes Franklin Foer, former editor of the New Republic.

All of that is coupled with a steady decline in media credibility, which has fallen an average of about one percentage point a year since it peaked in 1976 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Could another scandal save journalism? Irish bookmaker Paddy Power puts the odds of a President Trump impeachment during his first term at 2-1. Other bookmakers have placed the odds as narrow as 11-10.

That’s practically a flip of a coin. Let’s hope someone is around to report who calls heads or tails.

This piece first appeared at Last Best News.

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David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He published and edited The Billings Outpost, an alternative weekly newspaper in Billings, Montana, for 18 years before ceasing operations early in 2016, when he joined Last Best News, an independent online newspaper based in Billings.

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