“The news business is on pace for its worst job losses in a decade as about 3,000 people have been laid off or been offered buyouts in the first five months of this year,” said a July 1 article in Bloomberg News.
For starters, it’s hard to believe there is anybody left to lay off. Circulation has dropped almost half since the 1980s. In 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 37,900 people worked in the newspaper industry — which is 47 percent less than 2004.
Major markets are fine, even thriving. The Los Angeles Times added about 100 employees to its editorial staff; The Washington Post put 10 more people on its investigative team.
Small markets and weeklies can benefit, too, glomming discarded reporters and equipment like sharp-eyed old ladies at a garage sale on Grandview Drive. After GateHouse Media acquired the majority of local newspapers in 2007, weekly journalist DeWayne Bartels was ensconced in the Journal Star’s basement. For him, it was an improvement.
“I got a new computer,” he said. “It was from one of the reporters who left.”
(DeWayne might have been GateHouse’s ideal employee. A dedicated journalist, he died at his computer at the age of 53.)
No, middle markets like Peoria are hurt worst.
In May, a Wall Street Journal story discussed the “stark divide between a handful of national players . . . and local outlets for which time is running out.” The director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy predicted half of the remaining newspapers will be gone by 2021.
In the decade since GateHouse took it over, the JS has cut about 80 percent of its staff with buyouts and layoffs. That does not include local television and radio reporters eliminated over the same time period.
OK, you say, I know all that dismal stuff. What can I do?
Innovate, perhaps. That’s the point here. When there aren’t enough reporters to track public bodies, others can step up.
A prime example is the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria, which keeps an eye on Central Illinois’ public officials. Local Government Observers (LOGO) are not professional journalists. But they are instructed to be objective, non-partisan and fact-based in writing reports for the League.
“Protecting our right to know is integral to the health of our democracy,” wrote Mary Wilson, national League president when the group’s Observer guide was produced 10 years ago.
Today’s journalistic bloodbath reinvigorates such efforts. The Illinois League conducted its third LOGO training session Aug. 10 at the Peoria Public Library downtown. Two dozen people from Edwardsville to Kewanee attended the three-hour meeting to learn how to cover government. Half were from LWVGP, which is doubling its own corps to cover school boards, Peoria Park District and Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. (An LWVGP executive board member, I coordinate the monthly newsletter.)
To amplify their efforts, this Word column will focus on local government and link to the LWVGP website. Our mutual goal is greater transparency for public policy and tax dollars.
You can help. To learn more, visit LWVGP.org.