(Frank Keegan) – Don’t hold your breath waiting to fill lost jobs. Get over it. The thousands of professional news jobs cut by traditional media in less than a decade are never coming back.
Even if by some miracle of economic recovery and revolutionary invention of new business models the revenue returns, news industry leaders will take it right to the bottom line instead of investing in news.
It’s way past time for surviving editors and news directors to start thinking about how to fill the void. Unless we fill it, America’s future as a democratic republic is grim.
The jobs were not lost because of bad journalism or massive decline in citizen hunger for news, especially about their neighborhoods, communities and states.
Traditional media cut thousands of news jobs because leaders of an entire industry refused to adapt. They transformed the equivalent of tectonic shifts in technology and markets, which should have been great opportunities, into a death spiral.
When Tim Berners-Lee transformed the Internet into the World Wide Web, newspapers were sitting on the largest commercial digital database in history and direct connections with 50-80 percent of households in their markets, yet they refused to move on the opportunity.
As they tried to sustain historic earnings and quarterly gains by cutting expenses – staff, content and full-paid peripheral circulation — history passed them by.
That doesn’t mean professional journalists failed to serve readers who still wanted news. It means news industry leaders failed; readers and journalists are paying the price. Ultimately, so is America.
How bad were the cuts?
Estimates vary widely. Pew foundation studies put it in the thousands.
Marc Wilson, general manager of TownNews.com, writes in News&Tech magazine that it’s 20,000 in the last two years. According to the UNITY jobs tracker, news media cut 46,599 jobs between January, 2008, when they started counting, and the latest full year report last September. From September, 2008 to ’09, UNITY counted job cuts of 24,511 from newspapers, 8,333 from magazines and 1,172 from broadcast.
Pew estimates newspapers – where 75 percent of news stories originate — are investing $1.6 billion less in content than they were a decade ago.
Anyone curious about the impact on America should take a look at what’s happened to state government when journalists are cut.
According to American Journalism Review, state capitol press corps dropped 30 percent, 169 reporters, between 2003 and May of 2009.
In that time states went on a spending binge in the hundreds of billion dollars and hid long-term debt and obligations such as retirement benefit promises that put future taxpayers on the hook for trillions more.
How do we replace the thousands of professional journalists? One good way is through a tradition older than the United States of America: citizen journalists.
Many now work through non-profit organizations.
Even though Pew reports “the non-profit contributions flowing to these new media efforts since 2006 amount to about $141 million,” the impact can be great if traditional media use the content they produce.
With training, guidance and editing by professionals, the citizen journalists called to serve as reporters can make a major contribution to filling the void. The earliest journalists in colonial America and the newborn states were amateurs.
Editors and news directors should continue that tradition into the 21st Century.
(Frank Keegan is a national editor at the Franklin Center)