Since I launched my Substack site, a recurring theme of my writing has been the sorry state of mainstream journalism and (alleged) “journalists.”
My main critique has been that corporate journalists all think alike and only publish articles that protect the “authorized narrative.”
However, another feature explains the sorry state of journalism in America - namely, the number of journalists at big-city newspapers is evaporating at a stunning rate.
Even if journalists did cover taboo topics (which they don't), there's no longer enough journalists in newsrooms to devote the time to complex and time-consuming investigations.
Both features - “pack journalism” that only reports one side of important stories and the rapidly declining census of journalists - have profound and negative implications for our society.
In a recent example of excellent journalism, Joshua Benton, a journalist for NeimanLab, documented the “astonishing …. destruction” of local news that has occurred in the past decade at Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in America. (Gannett, perhaps to survive, recently merged with GateHouse Newspapers).
Note: I found this article at news aggregator Citizen Free Press, which serves a vital role in finding important stories.
According to Benton’s research, the nine largest Gannett Newspapers suffered an average circulation decline of “an incredible 67 percent” between Q3 2018 and Q3 2022 (pre-merger).
These papers include The Detroit Free Press, Arizona Republic (down 74.7 percent), Cincinnati Enquirer, Milwaukee Journal, Indianapolis Star (down 74.5 percent ) and Louisville Courier-Journal (down 74 percent).
Employees are vanishing …
What really stuns is the sharp decrease in employees in recent years. Writes Benton:
“At the end of 2018 — the last full pre-merger year — the two companies had a total of 27,600 employees,... And its most recent SEC filing reports that, as of the end of 2022, Gannett (which now includes the former GateHouse newspapers) had just 11,200 U.S. employees remaining (plus another roughly 3,000 overseas, mostly in the U.K.).
“In other words, Gannett has eliminated half of its jobs in four years. It’s as if, instead of merging America’s two largest newspaper chains, one of them was simply wiped off the face of the earth.”
Gannett is best-known for being the publisher of USA Today, which was once sold in racks at just about every convenience store in America. Not anymore though.
“In Q3 2018, USA Today reported a total daily circulation of 2,632,392. In its most recent filing, Q3 2022, that was down to 180,381. (For what it’s worth, that 2018 number was artificially inflated in a few ways, including counting the subscribers of some Gannett local newspapers. A fairer comparison might be just paid print circulation: 579,692 in 2018, 134,629 in 2022.)”
Simple math tells us that an average of only 2,692 print copies of USA Today are being sold in each state. My state of Alabama has 67 counties so that figure averages out to only 40 copies of USA Today being sold in each Alabama county. I don’t even think you can find a USA Today news rack in my county today.
One can perform simple extrapolations to get an approximate number of employees at each Gannett newspaper today.
According to Benton’s article, the combined Gannett-GateHouse company now has 217 daily newspapers (down from 261 in 2019) and 175 weekly newspapers (down from 302 in 2019).
The news organization thus publishes 392 newspapers. From another paragraph, we learn the company has approximately 14,200 employees (only 11,200 in America).
This means the average Gannett newspaper has only 36 employees. While most people associate newspapers with working journalists, most newspaper employees don’t write stories for a living. They work in accounting, advertising sales, subscriptions, layout or for the printing press (although most papers now farm out their printing).
Benton gives us an idea of how many journalists work at some of these Gannett newspapers and the figure is indeed “astonishing.”
The author grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana which is the home of the Gannett-owned Lafayette Daily Advertiser. Lafayette is a college town with a population of 121,000 people in a metro area of half a million people.
“The Advertiser reported having 17 newsroom employees in 2020 and it still had a handful of people covering hard news as recently as last year. But a combination of cuts, buyouts, and escapes left it with exactly one local news reporter by January. Its staff directory is stuffed with reporters who left months ago.
“There are now days when zero news stories out of Lafayette are published. The copy hole is filled by stories from wires, Gannett’s one-reporter state capitol bureau, or other Gannett Louisiana papers (all of which look like thinly reskinned versions of each other).”
Lafayette’s college happens to be a rival of my alma mater, Troy University. In fact, the Ragin’ Cajuns just won the SunBelt Conference basketball tournament. This is huge news as it means this team now gets to play in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament for the first time in nine years.
According to Benton, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ run through the tournament wasn’t even covered by the local newspaper on some days. A story was finally published, but it was written by a sports journalist for The Pensacola News (another Gannett newspaper).
I can relate as Gannett also owns The Montgomery Advertiser, which for more than a century, was the largest newspaper in central Alabama. Once upon a time, about half of middle class residents of Troy, Alabama (50 miles south of Montgomery) subscribed to The Advertiser. Today, I don’t know anyone in Troy who gets a print copy of The Advertiser.
A journalism colleague who used to work for The Advertiser recently told me the newspaper is now printing only 4,000 copies for its Sunday edition! This figure used to be around 150,000 copies.
I don’t know how many full-time “news” journalists The Montgomery Advertiser now employs, but it can’t be more than four or five people. And this is the State Capitol of Alabama. The newspaper used to have around seven journalists covering just sports.
That was then; this is now …
When I graduated from college in 1989, my first job was in Montgomery. I can distinctly remember that on some days I would buy and read as many as seven newspapers in one day - The Montgomery Advertiser, the now defunct Alabama Journal, The Birmingham News, The Birmingham Post Herald (now defunct), USA Today and sometimes the NY Times or Wall Street Journal.
Today, in central Alabama, one has to search long and hard to find a print copy of any of these newspapers that still exist.
In our state, the largest circulation newspapers were The Montgomery Advertiser, The Birmingham News, Mobile Press Register and Huntsville Times. The latter three “newspapers” are now owned by Advance Local Media and are published at the website al.com. As of this month, none of them publish a print edition.
As far as I know, the largest-circulation paid newspaper in Alabama might be The Advertiser (4,000 circulation on Sunday) or perhaps The Dothan Eagle or Tuscaloosa News, which is also a part of the Gannett/GateHouse chain.
I’d like to know how many “news journalists” work for these newspapers. This info is hard to find because many newspapers no longer publish “staff boxes” where the newspaper lists all of its journalists.
My guess is that al.com (which combined three of the state’s once largest newspapers) might have around 20 “news” journalists combined (about seven journalists per newspaper). If you add journalists from the Montgomery Advertiser and Tuscaloosa News, you might get close to 40 working news journalists.
The population of Alabama is approximately five million citizens. This means there is about one journalist per 125,000 residents in Alabama among our state’s historically largest-circulation newspapers.
In my state, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s only 125 or so journalists who routinely cover “news” and work full-time for newspapers (about two journalists per county).
What’s this means to you and me?
It means there’s no way in the world newspapers can come close to covering all the important stories that should be covered in our cities and state.
This means there’s virtually no “watchdog” press watching over any powerful figures in government or business … which probably means any official who might be inclined to scam the public has a good chance of getting away with it.
It means we don’t have a population that’s “educated” about important civic issues; most citizens probably don’t have enough information to decide what’s good for us or what might be bad for us.
There’s certainly not enough journalists to devote time to complex and time-consuming investigative journalism.
The few “full-time” journalists who still exist might as well all be clones and even if they wanted to make a splash and perform some important investigative work, they don’t have the time or newsroom help to do so.
I also wonder how all the colleges in my state are going to justify offering degree programs in “journalism.” The Journalism graduates are going to be competing for maybe 125 newspaper jobs in our state.
I guess the “work-around” is the growth of citizen journalists self-publishing on platforms like Substack or at websites like NeimanLab.
Even though I’m no fan of our sorry corporate journalists, our society does need journalists.
Ironically, journalist Joshua Benton provided a public service by chronicling the death of newspaper journalism.
"The few “full-time” journalists who still exist might as well all be clones and even if they wanted to make a splash and perform some important investigative work, they don’t have the time or newsroom help to do so."
And the major issue is that they couldn't do this even if they wanted to, when "the big boss" doesn't approve. (which is basically always) The "journalists" who are in decline are the parrots. The journalists who keep expanding their influence are the ones here.
Let them all rot in perdition.