by Walter Brasch
(Part 1 of 2)
On Monday, Nov. 2, every National Geographic staffer was told to report to the magazine’s Washington, D.C., headquarters the next day to await a phone call or e-mail from Human Resources.
Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation bought the magazine in September, there were rumors the new owner would maximize profits by terminating employees. Those predictions came through when Management fired 180 people, and told dozens of others they were being offered “voluntary buy-outs.” The corporation also announced it was eliminating health coverage for future retirees and was freezing all pensions. Management told the public there would be no loss of quality, but it’s hard to believe those claims when the same management sliced photo editors, designers, writers, and several fact-checkers from the payroll.
The same day Murdoch terminated 9 percent of his staff, the owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News fired 46 journalists, leaving only one copyeditor at the Daily News. A month earlier, the Los Angeles Times cut about 10 percent of its news room staff. The Chicago Sun-Times fired all its 28 photographers, including one who won the Pulitzer Prize, and is relying upon lower-paid freelancers and wire services.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, plans to cut one-fifth of its news staff. Beginning in 2012, executive management in Cleveland reduced the newspaper from a daily to three times a week and fired staffers at that time. The Times–Picayune isn’t the only newspaper to have downsized its newsroom and reduced frequency. Among metro dailies that are now printed only three or four days a week are the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, the Seattle-Post-Intelligencer, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the Syracuse Advance-Standard, and the Harrisburg Patriot-News. The Times-Picayune, Plain-Dealer, Advance-Standard, and the Patriot-News, all owned by Newhouse Newspapers, slashed their newsroom staff before reducing the frequency. Executive management had claimed there would be no loss of quality; Management was wrong.
During the past three decades, the number of daily newspapers declined from 1,730 in 1981 to 1,331 last year, with almost 100 newspapers ceasing publication just in the past three years.
During the past decade, newspaper owners, seeking to squeeze every dollar of profit they could, terminated about 22,000 employees, almost a 40 percent cut from the peak of 55,000 in 2006. Last year, management cut 3,800 positions, according to the American Society of News Editors. Although some of those laid off were marginally productive and skilled, most were experienced journalists who set standards for distinguished reporting and writing.
The remaining field reporters are now required not only to find the story, report it, and then write it, they now have to film it, using either a small hand-held camera or their cell phone, write it for the print edition, and then rewrite it for the web edition, updating the story for the web as often as necessary. Because of the need to fill the newspaper columns and web bandspace, while increasing the workload because of layoffs, in-depth and investigative journalism, which requires not just resources but time, has become nearly non-existent.
The major news magazines, including TIME and Newsweek, have sliced their news staffs. However, the trend to downsize to maintain or increase profits hasn’t been as severe in the magazine industry compared to the newspaper industry. The reason is that most of the nation’s 20,000 magazines already have few full-time editorial staff employees; freelance writers produce most of the stories.
The layoffs aren’t confined to the print media. Almost all cable networks, from the Golf Channel to MTV, TV Land, Nickelodeon, Turner Broadcasting, and Disney’s ESPN have cut or are planning to cut staff. Turner cut 1,500 jobs; ESPN announced last month it cut more than 300 employees, most of them producers and editors.
The major over-the-air network media have been reducing the number of reporters, writers, and producers since the early 1990s. Broadcast radio eliminated about 19 percent of its employee positions, down to 91,000 at the end of 2014 from 112,000 in 2002. “Rip-and-read” journalism—a DJ or other staffer taking news from a wire service and merely reading it—continued to replace local reporters reporting local stories. Even DJs have been eliminated in most stations, with technicians pushing buttons to bring in automated syndicated programs that have breaks for local commercials.
Disney’s ABC-TV chopped 400 positions, about 25 percent of its news division in 2010. CBS and NBC news divisions have also cut staff and coverage. On local TV stations, the downsizing is apparent with fewer stories of significance being aired, and with the declining quality of both reporting and writing. As is the case with radio, technology has reduced the need for technicians—as well as producers and editors. On some stories, a lone reporter is now forced to set up the camera, check audio and light levels, and interview the news source.
The social media have also begun downsizing, with Twitter laying off more than 300 of its 4,000 person workforce in October.
Owners blame the economy for their decisions to downsize. They blame loss of advertising. They blame the rise of digital media. They blame changing reading and viewing habits of the younger generation with a me-first egocentric attitude and a smart phone fused to their ear. They blame the lower ratings and declining income on the fragmentation of TV viewership because of the rise of hundreds of cable networks. They blame everyone and everything for their decisions. But, they seldom blame the real reason for the decline in circulation and ratings—their own incompetence.
(Next week: Causes and Solutions)
[In a four-decade career in journalism, Dr. Brasch has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, multi-media writer-producer, advertising copywriter, and professor of mass communications. He is the author of 20 books, most of which fuse history and contemporary social issues; his most recent book is Fracking Pennsylvania. He is also the recipient of more than 200 journalism awards for excellence, including multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, National Society of Newspaper Columnists, National Federation of Press Women, Press Club of Southern California, AP, and the Pennsylvania Press Club.]