New Report Documents Devastating Impacts of Consolidation on Four New Jersey Weeklies

Newsrooms across the country are much smaller today than they were even five years ago as the news industry has struggled to reshape its beleaguered business model.

That’s no secret. New rounds of layoffs seemed to be announced every week.

What isn’t as well known is what kind of impact these layoffs and consolidation moves are having on the volume and type of information available to local communities. We can assume it’s causing harm, but we don’t really know.

We tried to define the impact earlier this year.

After a round of deep cuts late last year at the North Jersey Media Group, which is one of New Jersey’s largest news operations, the Center for Cooperative Media began to investigate what those changes meant for the local news ecosystem.

What we found wasn’t entirely surprising, but it was enlightening.

Gannett took over North Jersey Media Group in July 2016. A few months later it significantly downsized the organization, impacting the state’s second-largest paper, The (Bergen) Record, and dozens of community weeklies. A total of 137 newsroom positions were eliminated at The Record, and the number of weekly community papers went from 53 to 32.

We studied the print editions of four different community weeklies for our report Layoffs in Local Newsrooms: Documenting the Changing New Jersey Local Journalism Ecosystem, 2016­­–2017.

Our research included a comparison of the pre- and post-Gannett issues of The Montclair Times, The Item of Millburn and Short Hills, The Nutley Sun and The Belleville Times. Among our findings:

  • All four outlets showed decreases in the number of “bylined” articles about their communities.
  • There was a marked decline in the number of community-information articles, which were defined as short notices ­— without bylines — about community events, awards or other noteworthy happenings.
  • There was a decrease in both “native” advertising (sometimes called sponsored content) and traditional block ads.
  • Crime stories were placed more prominently — often on the front page — more frequently than they were a year earlier.
  • We noticed several instances of content sharing across papers.

In short, the weekly printed newspapers of these four communities look very different after the Gannett takeover, and not for the better.

We also reported the results of a small survey of laid-off journalists, finding that those laid off were equally likely to be men or women, and that they were mostly still unemployed or underemployed. Perhaps most significantly, we found that almost half of those laid off had 20 or more years of experience reporting on local communities. That makes for a devastating loss of expertise and wisdom when it comes to holding those in power accountable.

To be sure, these changes are not unique to Gannett or to these newspapers. Rather, they’re the result of the widespread devastation to the newspaper industry that’s being felt across the country.

So where do we go from here?

At the end of our report, we outlined a set of strategic recommendations for ensuring that local news providers are meeting people’s critical information needs.

Among those recommendations was a suggestion to undertake a public-relations-style campaign for the many local news startups that have risen up to fill the holes in local coverage left by shrinking or shuttered legacy newspapers. In many cases these online news sites provide quality information but face obstacles to getting their names and content in front of the community. An awareness campaign could raise the profile of these outlets.

We proposed creating a “talent network” of people who have been laid off from legacy news organizations so this population’s tremendous wealth of talent and expertise can be repurposed for the digital age. This may involve simply gathering folks online and making their skills known to organizations looking for such experience.

We also proposed targeting community outreach to engage stakeholders in a conversation about information needs, financially supporting existing news outlets and startups, and delving into additional research on this topic as a whole.

Click here to read the entire report.

We’d love to hear from you, too; what do you think should be done to bolster local news coverage in the Garden State? Email your ideas to us at info@njnewscommons.org.

Sarah Stonbely manages research for the Center for Cooperative Media, and was the principal investigator for Layoffs in Local Newsrooms: Documenting the Changing New Jersey Local Journalism Ecosystem, 20162017.

Original photo by Flickr user Allan Foster

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