After Layoffs: Newspapers Get Smaller, Pew Study Finds

By: Mark Fitzgerald

U.S. daily newspapers aren’t shrinking just their newsrooms, an extensive study released Monday finds. Stories, page count, sections, international and national news are all smaller, too — and only a minority of editors think online journalism will save their papers.

In the study by journalist Tyler Marshall and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, editors by big numbers think their papers are actually improving their coverage, even as they lament that their staffs have lost their most veteran journalists in waves of buyouts and layoffs.

That’s not to say that editors are feeling very confident: Just 5% of the 259 top editors of newspaper big and small said they were “very confident of their ability to predict what their newsrooms would look like five years from now,” the report said.

The 57-page study, titled “The Changing Newsroom,” documents the effect of layoffs and the industry’s financial crunch on newsrooms. It also confirms that in many ways the industry is two businesses: big-city newspapers that are hurting mightily and smaller papers that are in pain but doing fairly well all things considered.

For instance, among the responding dailies with circulations over 100,000, fully 85% have cut newsroom staff in the past three years. A little more than half of the smaller dailies — 52% — report shrinking newsrooms.

More than half of the editors of metros expect more cutbacks in the next year, with about a third of the smaller-market editors expecting reductions. (Pew noted that its survey was completed between Jan. 29 and Feb. 29 — before the more ferocious wave of staff reductions were announced by chains such as Tribune Co. and The McClatchy Co.)

Among the most frequent victims of newsroom reductions, Pew says, are the copy editors who catch mistakes or inaccuracies before they make it into print or on the Web. Four out of 10 newspapers (42%) said they have reduced the number of copy editors in the last three years, while just 12% have increased. At larger papers, it’s worse, with 67% saying they have cut back on copy editors, versus just 2% that report increases.

“Another diminishing skill set, interestingly, is photographers,” the report says. “Overall, 31% of newspapers say they have cut back on photographers in the last three years, vs. 12% that had made net increases. At the biggest papers, this trend is more pronounced, with the majority reporting cutbacks on photographers (52%) and just 6% saying they had made net additions.”

If the number and experience of journalists has shrunk, so has the coverage of some news topics, the study found. The survey asked editors about the space devoted to various topics; the reporting resources assigned to them; and “how essential” editors rated the topics to their paper’s identity.

“By all three measures, international news is rapidly losing ground at rates greater than any other topic area,” the study said. Nearly two-thirds of dailies reported decreasing space devoted to foreign affairs.

Arts criticism is also losing space, along with science coverage, according to the study.

What’s still sacrosanct, though, is investigative reporting, especially among larger papers.

“Despite financial pressures and newsroom cuts elsewhere, half the editors from these (larger) papers said they had increased their investigative reporting staff over the past three year — twice the figure for smaller papers,” the survey said. More than nine of ten responding editors said investigative reporting was “very essential.”

Looking forward, editors view their paper’s Web site as a source of both hope and fear, the Pew study found.

“Editors feel torn between the advantages the web offers and the energy it consumes to produce material often of limited or even questionable value,” it said. “A plurality of editors (48%), for instance, say they are conflicted by the tradeoffs between the speed, depth and interactivity of the web and what those benefits are costing in terms of accuracy and journalistic standards.”

Slightly fewer editors, 43%, said they believe “web technology offers the potential for greater-than-ever journalism and will be the savior of what we once thought of as newspaper newsrooms.”

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