In two decades, Maine lost more than half of its newspaper publishing jobs.
Only jobs at paper mills, semiconductor manufacturers, wood product makers and vocational rehabilitation services fell at a faster rate.
Not all of those jobs lost are in the newsroom, but anyone who’s worked at a local paper can tell you: everyone at the paper does a little bit of reporting. I saw that firsthand at The Times Record, in Brunswick; at Mainebiz in Portland; and at The Bangor Daily News.
Every job loss makes the local paper less a part of the community. And research shows that communities are worse for it.
The decimation of the newspaper industry is a matter of public concern. Corruption is more likely as people are less engaged in politics.
Maine is an outlier, where the two major daily papers are not owned by a national conglomerate. Reade Brower owns papers covering most of the state.
Earlier this year, his company linked advertising among all of those outlets through the company Masthead Maine.
But they’re not exempt from industry-wide declines in advertising revenue and circulation that a Brookings study that described how newspapers are forced into what research analyst Clara Hendrickson called “the impossible situation of trying to do more with less.”
That phrase rings a bell. As a friend noticed, many newsroom revitalization plans have roughly fit this mold. Eventually, the joke goes, newspapers will do everything with nothing.
There’s a valid fear of that becoming literally true.
Through that independent ownership, Maine’s newspaper employment has not been hit as hard as 18 other states. Maine ranks 19th for job losses from 2000 to 2018.
But newspaper publishers in Maine raised wages at the second slowest rate in the country, behind only Rhode Island, according to figures from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. In Massachusetts, newspaper publishing wages rose 107 percent, not adjusted for inflation, during that time. Maine’s rose 57 percent.
The struggles of local and regional news have major impacts that, itself, warrants more coverage and attention.
Dermot Murphy, an assistant finance professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in public finance, found that the death of such news outlets translated to higher borrowing costs and less efficient operations for local governments:
We found that local government borrowing costs significantly increased for counties that have experienced a newspaper closure compared to geographically adjacent counties with similar demographic and economic characteristics without newspaper closures.
Newspapers often are the primary tillers of the soil in any local news ecosystem.
Researchers who uncovered quantitative findings about the impact of losing local newspapers followed up this year with a qualitative analysis.
Their work was based on interviews with 12 local reporters in California, where the job losses since 1991 were the steepest in the country.
Those interviews helped establish how these journalists experienced cutbacks in terms of the quality of their work, with familiar themes: papers withdrew from farther-flung suburbs, they’ve suffered the slings and arrows of a thousand cries of “fake news,” beats have become more geographically focused and less subject-matter focused.
The researchers did find that newspapers have tried to protect local government reporting from cuts. Meanwhile, features and other desks have been eliminated or have gotten smaller.
That’s trouble because of what I mentioned above: everyone at a newspaper does a little reporting. Stories that begin outside of City Hall can provide some of the best insight into the impacts of local government. Those beats are also ways that a news organization builds trust.
A newspaper loses out when it is not with a community for better or for worse, in good times and in bad. If people feel the news is always bad, it makes sense they might eye a reporter like the Grim Reaper showing up on their doorstep.
Newspapers reflect less of the local community than they did when those beats are cut. And the newspaper, despite the wishes of staff and readers, is worse off for it.
The researchers found this all serves to diminish a community’s “early warning system” for issues of public importance.
This is one part of a vicious cycle: as newsrooms are stretched thinner, reporters become more likely to scan for stories that can fit into established local, state or national storylines. As stories are more quantifiable units of output, measured by clicks and engagement, it becomes harder to justify the detailed story read by one insider or expert that tees up deeper reporting about a topic.
Looking more broadly, all reporting and correspondent jobs don’t seem so bad. Jobs as a reporter or correspondent paid a median wage of $39,290 last year, which is higher than all but two of the 10 most common jobs in Maine.
The figures include reporters at other outlets, including television stations and magazines.
Even considering that, the short list of jobs making comparable wages last year included: pipelayers, chemical technicians, credit counselors and correctional officers.
Use the interactive below to compare the median wage, entry wage and experienced employee wage for reporting and correspondent jobs to any other job in Maine.
Reporters and correspondent jobs paid
$2,170 more than the statewide median of
$37,120 last year, but the estimated entry-level and experienced wages were slightly below average.
[[READING NOTES]] Nieman Lab qualitative newspaper loss follow-up:
—Suburbs lose coverage -Reporters are spread thinner and lose expertise —Local government reporters have been protected, largely, but features and other areas where reporters interact mostly with the public have been cut (and why that’s bad for local government)
Gannett and GateHouse, two major newspaper chains, finished their planned merger, and the combined company intends to cut the combined budget by at least $300 million. That will come on top of unending job losses over the past decade in the affected newsrooms of more than 500 papers.
–Many more examples follow on coming consolidating among newspapers.
More than 2,000 local newspapers — mostly weeklies — have gone out of business in the past 15 years, the University of North Carolina’s Penny Muse Abernathy told me in an interview last summer.
Local journalism in crisis –Puts big number trends in context: advertising, news deserts, etc.
Whether cash-strapped from the erosion of advertising revenue or under-resourced due to cost-cutting measures pursued by owners, newsrooms find themselves in the impossible situation of trying to do more with less as their newsroom staffs have been cut in half.
—Trying to do more with less. Eventually, we’ll do everything with nothing.
When it comes to various forms of subsidies, however, Americans mostly oppose local news organizations receiving government funding — with six in 10 opposed to federal (66%) or local (60%) government subsidies. Importantly, willingness to support policies that would subsidize local news organizations are driven much more by philosophical concerns about the role of government than by practical concerns such as personal use of local news or perceptions of the financial state of local news.
As experts and policymakers devise and debate possible public policy approaches, one actionable policy recommendation to implement today is raising awareness about the financial health of the local news industry.
In 2005, the Post lost a chance at a ten-per-cent investment in Facebook, whose returns, as Abramson points out, would have floated the newspaper for decades. The C.E.O. of the Washington Post Company, Don Graham, and Mark Zuckerberg shook hands over the deal, making a verbal contract, but, when Zuckerberg weaseled out of it to take a better offer, Graham, out of kindness to a young fella just starting out, simply let him walk away. The next year, the Post shrugged off a proposal from two of its star political reporters to start a spinoff Web site; they went on to found Politico. The Times, Abramson writes, declined an early chance to invest in Google, and was left to throw the kitchen sink at its failing business model, including adding a Thursday Style section to attract more high-end advertising revenue. Bill Keller, then the newspaper’s editor, said, “If luxury porn is what saves the Baghdad bureau, so be it.”
–Must journalism be tethered to something else to make it viable. Were these missed opportunities or dodging a bullet?
By some measures, journalism entered a new, Trumpian, gold-plated age during the 2016 campaign, with the Trump bump, when news organizations found that the more they featured Trump the better their Chartbeat numbers, which, arguably, is a lot of what got him elected. The bump swelled into a lump and, later, a malignant tumor, a carcinoma the size of Cleveland. Within three weeks of the election, the Times added a hundred and thirty-two thousand new subscribers. (This effect hasn’t extended to local papers.) News organizations all over the world now advertise their services as the remedy to Trumpism, and to fake news; fighting Voldemort and his Dark Arts is a good way to rake in readers. And scrutiny of the Administration has produced excellent work, the very best of journalism.
–This doesn’t extend to smaller papers.