Beyond the Numbers: Newsroom Losses in New Jersey
*Joe Amditis is a CUNY Social Journalism Program Student 16´. This post is part of the work he did at the “Data Skills” course I taught during the Summer of 2016. He continues his research about this topic. Read to see how you can contribute with information.
Layoffs and job losses have been a big part of the story when it comes to most major industries over the last decade, peaking in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2016 shows the U.S. lost roughly 8 million jobs as a result of the Great Recession, and most of the recovery can be traced to an increase in low-wage jobs. Journalism and media professionals — including those referenced in John Oliver’s recent take on the issue — are acutely aware of this problem.
NEWSROOMS ACROSS THE COUNTRY MAKE DIFFICULT CUTS
The number of full-time newsroom jobs in the United States has steadily declined since 1998. This is mostly due to a major shift in reader behavior and the rise of digital media, which has disrupted the entire media industry. The impact on U.S. newsrooms and individual journalists has been devastating, especially since the market crash of 2008.
Now, nearly eight years after the start of the Great Recession, newspapers and reporters are still dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis and the digital media revolution, as most major media organizations are struggling to redefine successful business models. Last year was arguably the worst year for newspapers since the crash. Data from the Pew Research Center shows daily newspaper circulation fell by 7% in 2015, the biggest drop since 2010. Meanwhile, Pew says “advertising revenue at publicly traded newspaper companies fell by 8%, the most since 2009. At the same time, newsroom staffing fell by 10% in 2014, the last year for which data were available.”
NEW JERSEY NEWSROOMS FACE CUTS
Like the rest of the nation, newsrooms in New Jersey have been impacted by a consistent series of buyouts, layoffs, closures, and restructuring. The overall decline in print newspaper circulation has been accompanied by revenue declines and corresponding newsroom layoffs.
From 2001 to 2007, New Jersey newsrooms cut at least 187 newsroom jobs. The remaining 88.4% of the newsroom job losses (at least 1,425) occurred during the eight years following the crash.
The chart below shows that Gannett Co. newsrooms — which include the Asbury Park Press and the Cherry Hill Courier-Post — took the biggest hit. According to the data — which was collected from a series of news articles and other online sources announcing major layoffs at various publishers across the state — Gannett newspapers in New Jersey have cut at least 751 newsroom jobs since 2001.
The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, came in second with at least 425 newsroom staff reductions during that same time period. In 2008, the Star-Ledger announced that it planned to cut 40% of its newsroom staff, which the New York Times called “one of the largest reductions in a single move by a major American paper.”
STATEHOUSE REPORTING: ‘UNSEXY’ BUT CRUCIAL
Statehouse bureaus and reporters in particular have seen dramatic staff reductions and closures in New Jersey. The Trenton Times and the Press of Atlantic City, for example, completely shuttered their statehouse bureaus over the course of the last decade. The loss of entire statehouse bureaus is especially troubling when you consider the impact and significance of the decisions that are made during statehouse proceedings and committee meetings.
“Statehouse coverage can be some of the most important and unsexy work that newsrooms do,” says Sean Sullivan, a reporter at NJ Advance Media. “A lot of the important meat of what goes into a law happens at very boring, poorly attended committee hearings. Now there are fewer bodies to attend those hearings, which means more shenanigans are likely to go on undetected.”
John Reitmeyer is the budget and public finance reporter at NJ Spotlight, a non-profit newsroom in New Jersey that focuses on in-depth policy coverage at the state level. Reitmeyer has been a statehouse reporter in New Jersey for nearly 20 years, and he says the numbers don’t tell the full story.
“Yes, there are fewer statehouse reporters in general,” Reitmeyer says, “but what’s made the challenge more difficult is you also have full bureaus that no longer exist — the Trenton Times no longer has a statehouse bureau, the Atlantic City Press, where I worked for a while, no longer has a statehouse bureau — so we have fewer bureaus, and the bureaus that we do have, the ones that survived, generally don’t have as many people in them.”
BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Fewer reporters doesn’t necessarily mean inferior coverage, and new reporters are sometimes hired to replace those who were cut.
Lee Keough is the editor-in-chief at NJ Spotlight, which she helped co-found in 2009 because she understood the gravity of the layoffs and the impacts they could have on New Jersey residents.
“NJ Spotlight was formed in response to this problem.” Keough said. “Essentially, we were formed when the Star-Ledger did all those buyouts and people left — at least half the staff — and there were layoffs all around the state. There were a handful, at most, of people in the statehouse for the first couple years. They’ve bulked up the statehouse a little bit since then — NJ.com has a few people — but it fluctuates now.”
These days, NJ.com has more than just a few people, and could serve as a promising example — or at least a cause for cautious optimism when you consider the context of contemporary newsrooms. In 2009, NJ.com and the Record merged their statehouse bureaus. In 2011, NJ.com announced that it planned to double the number of statehouse reporters covering the governor and legislature in Trenton. The 2009 merger and the subsequent staff increase in 2011 brought NJ.com’s total statehouse reporters to 12, one of the largest in the country.
But there are other, less obvious consequences that are much harder to understand without looking beyond the raw employment numbers. Institutional knowledge and continuity, for example, are also severely affected.
“When I started in the statehouse as a full-time reporter in 2007,you had reporters with 10–20 years of experience in pretty much every bureau,” John Reitmeyer said.“You had this institutional knowledge of different stories so, when an issue came up, there was a breadth of experience that you could turn to. You had reporters with the gravitas to be able to challenge a leading senator or a governor in a press conference on an issue and really keep them honest.”
Without the institutional knowledge and experience of veteran reporters, statehouse bureaus and reporters are at a disadvantage, even without the staff reductions and dwindling resources.
MAPPING THE WAY FORWARD
The New Jersey newsroom data represents a microcosm of some of the larger, macro-level trends happening across the country, particularly among local and regional papers with modest circulation. Tracking and mapping these layoffs is an important task that could provide a better picture of the changes to the media industry and job market in New Jersey over the last several years.
The first step toward understanding and addressing the challenges of the statehouse and other important beats is to get a better understanding of where the weak points are. Instead of simply tracking the number of layoffs, tracking the specific coverage areas and reporting beats of those who were cut could add even more value to the overall picture.
The current available data in this area is far from complete — especially at such a granular level. The form below is an attempt to fill in some of those gaps.
Did you work in a New Jersey newsroom from 2001–2015? Were you let go, laid off, or otherwise terminated? Did you somehow manage to keep your newsroom job during and after the Great Recession? Use the form to enter information about your employer and your beat.
The form does not ask you to identify yourself. It only asks for basic information, including the name of the newsroom where you worked, your job title, your beat, when you started, when you were let go, and whether or not you were given some type of severance package. There is also an optional space for you to describe your attempts to recover in your own words.
Hopefully this data will help us better understand where our resources are needed most — regardless of how scarce they may be .