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.


Andria said...

Mr. Picard,

I've enjoyed (and cited) your research in the past, and this post has some interesting questions and insights.

But there's one flaw in the underlying numbers:

In the time period you're examining, the "back shop" or paste-up department disappeared from newspapers. The knife-wielding, waxing heirs to hot type lost their jobs as newspapers used technology to move their work into newsrooms across the world. Copy editors, designers, paginators and yes, some supervisors, took over the work of making stories and headlines fit and get output to a negative for platemaking (and also onto the web).

At many newspapers, the "prepress" shops were the first victims of technological changes.

I'm unsure whether ASNE kept numbers on those jobs lost, but in many ways, that work was transferred to newsrooms. I hate to think that work displaced strong reporting, but your numbers seem to suggest that it has.

Remembering and factoring in the pagination shift helps round out your cited numbers, however, showing that a decline of only 1 percent for copy editors reflected other, massive shifts in job responsibilities.

Thanks for your good research, and thanks for listening.

Anonymous said...

I agree there's a lot of hysteria about newspapers these days, but using raw numbers the way you have is misleading. The US population has grown and society is more complex than it was 30 years ago and the number of journalists hasn't kept pace.

In 1977, there were an estimated 220 million people and 43,000 journalists, or 20 journalists per 100,000 people.

In 2007, there were an estimated 301 million people and 52,000 journalists, or 17 journalists per 100,000 people.

The employment of journalists -- in a meaningful sense -- has fallen in the last 30 years, not increased 18 to 20 percent, as you say.

Mr Osato said...

Sorry but this is a false argument. It assumes that the amount published by newspapers - the workload - has remained consistent. It hasn't, newspapers have grown exponentially with endless supplements, advertorials and new ways to keep journalists away from journalism. And that's before the internet, online video rubbish etc. The journalists losing their jobs are the ones on the streets, with specialist local knowledge and sound contacts. Those that are left are writing miles from their patches, blogging with one hand, subbing with the other, taking digital photographs with their seat. Oversight for local government, health services, police? Forget it.

PS - this is a UK perspective, but I'm sure it's no different across the pond

Robert G. Picard said...

That is exactly the point. Editors and publishers have chosen to do other things with their journalists and to give them other tasks instead of serious news coverage.

Those are choices made by news media personnel themselves.

Bill Doskoch said...

Mr. Picard:

Do you know of similar numbers for Canada as to what the ASNE produces for that country?

I would say that anecdotally, the newsrooms I'm most familiar with employ notably fewer journalists now than they did 20 years ago when I was a young reporter.

Management have been eroding staffing levels to maintain high profit margins.

I would concur with the person who suggests that relative to the U.S. population, the number of journalists has shrunk.

I concur with you that ultimately, management makes the decision on how journalists are to be deployed.

Journalists are generally employees, not members of democratic worker co-ops. Management doesn't usually solicit their opinions about the strategic direction of the newspaper.

In that situation, I'm afraid whining is all they have.

Robert G. Picard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert G. Picard said...

I don't have those stats but CNA or CJA or Statistics Canada should have them.

Inksniffer said...

Nice piece. You are absolutely right. But in truth readers have driven much of this. While they tell newspapers they want them to be more concise they have tended to go for the papers with the most stuff in them. That's a rational way to behave given the need to create a "personal" newspaper worth the cover price. The more content, the more chance of people feeling they get value for money from the 10% of the paper they read.

It's subjective but I would also bet that if you could chart the quality of newspapers with the number of staff it would not be a steep line from least staffed to best staffed.

I've been trying to get to grip with some of this at http://garciainteractive.com/blog/view/38/

Love to get your input.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting point but I have three quibbles with it. First, do you have any solid evidence for your 20% figure? Not that I doubt that there is more feature/fluff journalism than the public service kind but I'd like to know where you get this ratio from. Second, we don't know if this is any different to the situation that existed in earlier decades. And third, we don't know to what extent efficiencies in the newsgathering business might be making these journalists more productive than they would have been in earlier decades.

Anonymous said...

This is an academic argument - and that's the problem. Down here on planet Earth - Media studies students are being told not to expect to find a job. Newspaper circulations are falling; Advertising revenue is either collapsing or being diverted into other areas; Any journalist over 40 lives in terror of redundancy; Newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves without effect (i.e.Trinity Mirror) and depression hangs over the whole profession. Convergence - the word that was supposed to signal salvation - isn't working for many provincial publications and no one knows where this is all going. This isn't a make believe crisis. It's bloody real. So were the tears shed on my shoulder last night by a long serving senior agency Correspondent who - after 35 years - is now unemployed and finding it desperately hard to get a new job. Classic case of 'those who can would do if they could still find a job, and some of those who can't teach - but need to wise up.

Gabriel said...

I follow your thinking and find it stimulating and different; to understand this post more I should say that the growth in the number of journalists since the 70's was supposed to happen, as the number of users of packaged information mushroomed, as the new types of media evolved. But the crisis is real. I work as an editor in a Spanish daily language. This sector -the latino readership- was considered almost protected from recession and crisis. And yet we shed a sizable percentage of reporters, editors; eliminated the copy desk, slashed the graphic department from the top designers down. But we do have a majority of resources dedicated to news that help the community, that are relevant, that constitute a service; are close to what is close to that community. Also: the readership didn't collapse; it went down but not by much. Maybe this is because many of them are of low income, look more for job classified, or for soccer from Mexico. So the crisis must be found somewhere else. Maybe among others in the fact that with dwindling resources we actually produce more while cost less.

Cath Quinn said...

I think you're strongly missing the point when you say that journalists 'choose' to focus on other issues.

Journalists no more choose to focus on trivia than retailers 'choose' which products to sell consumers.

As with any service industry we are driven wholly but what our readers want, and when the high turnover of gossip mags etc. attest to public demand we have to temper our supply to follow suit.

Robert G. Picard said...

Editors, who are journalists, make choices about what stories to cover, how to present them, and how much coverage to give. And every reporter makes choices about how to go about it as well.

Providing trivia, gossip,and other puff news hasn't worked at stemming the slide of readership or attracting new readers, so I don't see it as supplying what the customers want.

To blame poor performance on the customers is to deny responsibility for one's own acts or omissions.