Damian Radcliffe
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Damian Radcliffe

Life in the fast lane: the working habits of U.S. local newspapers

Findings from a survey of more than 300 newspaper employees

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Eagle newsroom. Image via Brattleboro Reformer and the Associated Press

This is an extract from a report — “Life at Local Newspapers in a Turbulent Era: Findings from a survey of more than 300 newsroom employees in the United States”published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in October. It was co-authored with my Research Assistant for this project, Ryan Wallace, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Yesterday I shared the Executive Summary and then the scene-setting chapters which offer an Introduction, and exploration of the Methodology and Profile of Respondents.

Today, we dive into the reality of working life; including working hours, job security and how these jobs have changed.

Chapter 4: Working habits in local newsrooms

Key Findings:

  • 54 percent of respondents told us they work across both print and digital output.
  • Where respondents work on a single channel, they are more likely to be focused on print (27 percent vs. only 11 percent that are digital-only in their role).
  • More than half (57 percent) of participants said they spend more time on the digital product than they did three years ago.
  • Just over a quarter (27 percent) of survey participants dedicate more time to print products than they did three years ago. A third (34 percent) said their time on print had stayed the same.
  • Over a third of respondents (37 percent) work more than 50 hours a week, with half of our sample (50 percent) telling us they work 40 to 50 hours a week. These hours are taking place despite furloughs, pay cuts, and reduced formal hours being the norm in many newsrooms at the time of our survey.
  • Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said that in the past three years, the number of stories they personally produce has increased.
  • Despite the pandemic, nearly half of respondents (45 percent) said they felt secure in their jobs, although they feel less secure than at the start of the crisis.

In this section, we look at the experience of local journalists. These measures don’t specifically address questions related to the coronavirus, but many responses are inevitably shaped by them, given that participants took our survey during the late summer and early fall of 2020.

We explore the tightrope many outlets have to navigate between digital and print operations, [35] working conditions, and how some of these elements have changed since Tow’s first local journalism survey in late 2016. [36]

4.1 Print vs. Digital

Where journalists spend their time

With internet takeup in the USA now at 90 percent, [37] it’s not surprising that many journalists — even at operations with a print product — spend considerable amounts of time focused on digital output.

More than half (54 percent) of respondents told us they work across digital and print products. This reflected challenges that respondents indicated in fulfilling, for example, a “digital-first philosophy” and appealing to “younger readers [who] prefer digital editions,” while also serving existing print audiences.

Getting and keeping the attention of our readers is important,” one respondent told us, “and we have to do that with our print and digital products.” For local newspapers, this juggling act across platforms — especially in an era of diminished personnel — shows no signs of abating.

Interestingly, those who are working on only one of those options tend to be focused on the print side (27 percent) versus 11 percent for digital-only, reflecting the continued importance and priority that local newspapers attach to their physical product.

Our 2017 report noted the tightrope local newspapers need to walk, as they “respect print and grow digital.” [38] The resource allocation described by our 2020 sample suggests that outlets must continue to navigate this dynamic, not least because of their continued reliance on print advertising. [39]

Q9 Do you mostly work?

How the focus of efforts has changed

In 2016, our first survey demonstrated how journalists’ time was increasingly being spent on digital output. This trend — and digital emphasis — was evidenced even more strongly in our 2020 survey.

We asked respondents to reflect on whether the focus of their work had changed in an average week. More than half (57 percent) told us that their focus on digital products and tasks had increased, with a further 17 percent indicating their time commitment to digital had stayed the same.

Interestingly, only one in five (19 percent) said the time they spent on print had decreased. More widely, based on feedback from our respondents, the increased time spent on digital is not offset by spending less time on print.

Around a third (34 percent) indicated that their focus on print has remained relatively stable over the last three years. Interestingly, just over a quarter (27 percent) of survey participants reported they now dedicate more time to print products, reflecting the continued importance of this medium at local newspapers.

Q16 (1+2): Thinking about your work over the past three years. How has the focus of your output changed in an average week? Consider the hours, demands, tasks, and expectations for your role. — Print/Digital

4.2 Working hours

A long-hours culture

A long working week is nothing new for Americans, [40] or indeed most journalists. [41]

Respondents told us they worked anywhere between 10 and 80 hours a week. Many journalists may feel that it’s impossible to do their job, or “get the paper out,” if they do not. As one respondent told us:

Our publications have decreased in the number of pages, specialty publications and promotions have been cancelled, editorial staff hours reduced, yet they continue to work hard to fill the pages each week. There have been areas within our company where people have lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently.”

Q12: How many hours a week do you work on average?

The impact of COVID

Due to the financial pressures of the pandemic, many journalists have had their paid hours cut.

Nevertheless, although some respondents told us that for the past six months they had been required to furlough one day a week, they work overtime by choice. Others repeated this sentiment that they are often only paid for a reduced work week, but continue to work well beyond their contracted hours.

Collectively, their descriptions paint a picture of newsrooms where management continues to cut the hours of full-time employees without modifying expectations. As a consequence, part of local journalists’ labor at times may go uncompensated.

Indeed 36 percent of respondents reported that their working hours had increased during the pandemic, with a similar number (35 percent) reporting that working hours had stayed the same. Only 12 percent said their hours had decreased, despite numerous formal labor reductions. [42]

Q13 Thinking back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, have these hours:

4.3 Workloads

Output levels have increased

Alongside asking respondents to share with us how many hours a week they work, we also asked them about the volume of content they produce.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the jobs cuts we have seen across the industry, and the fact that our survey took place during the middle of a pandemic, when asked about the number of stories they produce, almost half of respondents (49 percent) indicated that the number of stories they personally produce has increased in the last three years.

Given that working hours appear to be relatively stable, this means journalists are having to work quicker; this may have knock-on effects for the types of stories they cover, the number of sources they interview, and their ability to report in the field rather than from the office.

Q17 Thinking back over the past three years, has the number of stories you now personally produce:

In addition to this, the breadth of responsibilities has often increased too. As one respondent explained:

“Aside from lack of funds and tight time constraints, another challenge we’re facing at small newspapers is the necessity to wear several hats, while only getting paid for one job.

For example (at least at our publication), an editor also has to be a reporter, photographer, newsletter writer, and social media expert, and a graphic designer also has to be the webmaster, community outreach point-person, and legal notice compiler/writer.

This all contributes to stress and burnout, and the issue ties into the fact that we don’t have enough money to hire more people.”

Pace of work, coupled with progression opportunities (or lack thereof), was identified by another survey participant as an issue for the industry in terms of retention.

“There’s no clear future for journalists these days and few advancement opportunities, so burnout seems to occur much more quickly.”

4.4 Job Security

A mixed bag

Beyond concern about burnout and an aging industry, respondents also expressed misgivings around job security. Changing work patterns, long hours, and layoffs all contribute to instability.

Despite this, many respondents (45 percent) indicated that they felt secure in their jobs. Within this, 28 percent said that they felt “slightly secure” and 17 percent “very secure.”

This may come as a surprise, given the climate that journalism is operating in. As a majority of our respondents represent veteran (more than 20 years of experience) editors and reporters, we can speculate that these greater than expected levels of job security may potentially be attributable to seniority within newsrooms.

Alongside this, the timing of this survey (August-September 2020) came at a time when many people had already been laid off from newsrooms, meaning that those who remain at a paper may feel more secure about their positions.

At the other end of the spectrum, just under a third (32 percent) of respondents felt “slightly insecure” (16 percent) or “very insecure” (16 percent) about the job.

Overwhelmingly, respondents felt secure (45 percent) or insecure (32 percent) in their jobs, demonstrating very little center ground on this topic.

Q14: How secure, or not, do you feel in your job?

4.5 Conclusion and Commentary

Issues of burnout, long hours, and the tensions between print and digital are nothing new. Based on our survey responses, these issues are as prevalent now as they ever have been. At the same time, our respondents also suggest some additional — recent — dimensions that are adding to these difficulties.

One facet of this can be seen in the impact of attacks on the press. We are seeing “burnout of folks working in journalism due to negative comments thrown at journalists (fake news, uncaring, biased),” one respondent observed. Others highlighted “dealing with online trolls” as well as “bullying and harassment of staff” as challenges that take their toll.

Reduced staff and resources can also limit efforts to do things differently.43

Reflecting on addressing issues of equity and inclusion, a topic we explore more in Chapter 6, one participant noted that “there is no opportunity for such work we are woefully underpaid and understaffed, so we pretty much have to use what we have and do what we can with it.” This was a sentiment we heard from multiple respondents.

At the same time, some respondents were also critical of newspaper owners. “They saddle reporters with all the work as they let vacancies go dark, leaving readers in the dark, too,” one participant said. Others noted recruitment challenges, which again has an impact on working hours and habits. “So much gloom and doom has circulated about small towns and about newspapers that no one is willing to work for them,” one respondent told us.

For some employees, lack of resources means local newspapers are unable to realize their potential.

“My experience is that the big guys are missing the boat. Many of the small papers owned by the big boys are squeezed to reduce costs which has put the local papers on a forever downward cycle. Many local editors/publishers want to do a good job but they cannot handle the work load with the resources given.”

Others see an inherent tension between the pressures of the print and digital products. “Take out the monetary aspect and the amount of time we have to divert from the print publication to keeping up the website and social media, and local newspapers are capable of holding our own,” one respondent said.

To remedy this, instead of increasing workloads and story quotas, a few participants argued for more radical solutions.

“I’m optimistic about the number of print subscribers we would convert to digital if there is no print option,” one suggested. “How many advertising dollars we would convert is [the] more fraught question. But maybe more than we would think. Revenues will be less in a world without print, but margins will be better, and we once again could be a growth industry.”

Endnotes

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Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic output by the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon

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Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app

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