Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Journalists keep raising the crescendo of the chorus that journalists are losing their jobs and journalism is suffering. They point to the fact that about 10 percent of journalists have disappeared from newspapers since the millennium when U.S. newsroom employment reached a peak of 56,373.

It is true that cutbacks are pandemic these days, and that these employment reductions hit close to home for journalists, but some context is usually useful when considering the numbers and their impact. Let’s take a look at the U.S. numbers.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has conducted a newsroom employment census for 3 decades and it presents a telling story. According to the latest ASNE newsroom employment figures, there are 22 percent more journalists in newspapers than there were in 1977 (43,000 in 1977; 52,600 in 2007). Even granting employment losses of 2,000-4,000 since the last census, employment is still about 18 to 20 percent higher than it was in the 1970s. That doesn't seem like an industry employment CRISIS, except for those who unfortunately lost their jobs.

If mere numbers of journalists are considered an indicator of quality, the growth of journalist employment from 1970s to 2000 should have made journalism extraordinary in the 1980s and 1990s. No one should have been surprised by the savings and loan debacle, the Soviet Bloc collapsing, the international debt crisis in developing nations , U.S. aid to governments in central America and the Iran-contra affair, child labor in the developing world, the explosive growth of Chinese economy, or rising domestic and international terrorism. But we were surprised and journalists didn't forewarn us. Obviously, the attention of the rising number of journalists was turned elsewhere.

If you look at newsrooms you can see the problem. Most journalists in newspapers do everything BUT covering significant news. They spend their time doing celebrity, food, automobile, and entertainment stories. Look around any newsroom, or just the lists of assignments or beats, and you soon come to realize that 20 percent or fewer of the journalists in newsrooms actually produce the kind of news that most people are concerned about losing.

It is not the mere number of journalists that matters; it’s the choices that editors and publishers make about how to use the journalists available to them. Journalists are a crucial resource and how they are utilized has a significant influence on quality. Few newspapers have cut sections or types of coverage, choosing instead to cut throughout the newsroom and not to reassign journalists to the kinds of journalism that matters most to society.

It should also be noted that decisions where to cut employment in newsrooms have not been equally spread among employment categories either. According to ASNE statistics the number of newsroom supervisors has declined only seven tenths of one percent since 2000; copy editors 1 percent, photographers and artists 10 percent, and reporters 11 percent. There may be reasonable rationales for that, but the numbers seem unusually lopsided to me. If there are fewer reporters and photographers to be supervised and edited, one would expect that fewer editors and supervisors would be required and warranted.

Maybe it’s about time that journalists stop whining about their troubles and initiate some internal discussions about how their own newsrooms are structured and operated.