As Newsrooms Shed Jobs, Journalists Wonder Who Will Keep the Powers That Be Honest

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Amy Brothers was out of the office and on assignment when she got the call that she was being laid off from her job as a multimedia producer at The Denver Post. The news hit her hard and came at a time when Brothers was busier than ever, covering stories about the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The day she was let go, she was filming a video about a company that had transitioned from making wrestling singlets to protective masks for health care workers.

“It was like a coach taking you out in the middle of the game,” says Brothers. “As a journalist in a breaking news situation, I was going so hard, trying to tell stories about what was happening in my community, that it really threw me.”

Brothers isn’t the only journalist to be unceremoniously given a pink slip. Since COVID-19 sent most of the country into lockdown and triggered an economic freefall, newsrooms across America have been shedding jobs at an alarming rate. Newspapers, magazines and digital publishers like the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, BuzzFeed, Condé Nast and Gannett have instituted pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs as ads have shriveled up. The New York Times recently estimated that the pandemic has left some 36,000 news workers with reduced salaries or, in some cases, jobless.

In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer has been gutted, shrinking from a staff of 32 down to just four. The layoffs, which had been in the works before the pandemic hit, came as reporters were working overtime to cover the crisis.

“Up until the end, we were all pretty much killing ourselves,” says Brie Zeltner, a health reporter who worked at the paper for 14 years, and who was among those laid off. “It’s a loss not only for the reporters who have lost their jobs, but it’s a loss for the community as well… I don’t think you can really call that a newsgathering organization when you only have four people.”

The decline of newspapers is leaving some areas without much local coverage at all.

“What happens if journalism goes away?” says Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. “From studies, we know that corruption increases and local, regional and national politicians get away with more. It’s not a fantasy to say that journalism holds power to account.”

The fresh wave of cuts has led to calls for government intervention. Two weeks ago, WGA East — which represents journalists in broadcast and digital newsrooms — circulated a petition calling for loans and grants targeted at the news business.

“The shutdown has had the effect of shutting down advertising. That’s what pays for news,” says Lowell Peterson, executive director of the union. “People are not buying cars, so advertisers are not buying car ads. Retailers are not open so they don’t advertise. … I think the industry needs some help.”

Peterson argues that the loans can be structured such that the money is spent in newsrooms, and not on stock buybacks or executive bonuses.

“The news plays a role that goes beyond the economics of the news industry,” he says. “It’s the only source of real information that people have. If there’s no money and everybody gets laid off and there’s no news in a time of public health crisis, we’re in deep trouble.”

Bell notes that news organizations were contracting even before the pandemic upended their businesses. Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Google have siphoned off the lion’s share of digital advertising revenues, and print publications have long struggled with declining subscriber bases.

“What’s particularly scary is all of these changes and trends we were seeing are accelerating,” says Bell. “All the cuts and furloughs and changes in newsrooms that we expected to happen over the long term are happening on a much shorter time scale.”

On her last day at The Denver Post, Brothers composed a thread informing people that she’d been laid off and talking about her belief in the power of local journalism. Her tweets were shared by thousands of people.

“I was surprised by all the good vibes and positive messages I received,” says Brothers. “That was sort of a silver lining.”

Zeitner, meanwhile, is now filing stories for a non-profit news outlet in Michigan. Advance Publications, which owns the Plain Dealer, has also imposed layoffs and furloughs at cleveland.com, the non-union newsroom which employs 60-some journalists.

“We did lose a lot of very talented reporters who had been at the paper for a long time, and had really deep sources in the community and a lot of trust,” Zeltner says. “That’s not something you can replace easily.”