Recent layoffs at sister newspapers the Winston-Salem Journal and the News and Record in Greensboro have left the ranks of reporters in both locations severely depleted. It's at least the third round of layoffs since February 2018. That's when former owner BH Media — a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway — laid off seven employees and eliminated nine vacant positions. Two years later the publications were sold to Lee Enterprises for $140 million, but the cuts continued. Downsizing efforts like these follow a decades-long national trend and it's the local communities that pay the price.
"Cutting Into The Bone"
At a period in history when print journalism everywhere continues to contract, it's difficult to even picture a time when newspapers were king. Former Winston-Salem Journal Executive Editor Carl Crothers remembers it well.
“Generally, they made money hand over fist,” says Crothers. “I mean, it wasn't uncommon for a local paper to have as much as 30% or more return on profit. That's compared with 5% for grocery stores. And they got spoiled by that.”
He says pressure began with the first public ownership of newspapers — stockholders demanding returns quarter after quarter with little patience for dips in revenue. But even as late as the 90s, he says print ads were still selling like hotcakes in local papers across the country.
“Back in the day, a Thursday paper or say a Sunday paper might have, say in Winston-Salem, it might have eight full pages of Belk advertisements and probably ten full pages from the car dealerships in color,” he says. “And the paper reaped a tremendous amount of revenue from that. That pretty much went away in a matter of a few years.”
The reason? The internet, Craig's List, and the ability for local businesses to advertise themselves cheaply online. Then came the recession of 2008 and Crothers says the entire industry began spiraling down. Soon he was faced with few options, none of them good.
“You know my job was to lay people off basically the last two or three years I was there. That's all I did was decide among the really good people we had who was going to get laid off because we were really just cutting into the bone there toward the end, so I just left myself,” he says.
"A Civic Crisis"
That was 2010. Since then hundreds of communities across the U.S. have faced steep losses in their access to local news and information.
“This is a civic crisis," says Melanie Sill, who directs the North Carolina Local News Workshop at Elon University. "This kind of question of how powerful people can operate without being held to account is one that a lot of people don't feel in their bones the same way that I do, or journalists do, but they're starting to.”
She says she's encouraged to see foundations and individuals step up to start funding efforts to boost local journalism, but she adds the problem extends beyond newspapers.
“In any community let's say there are two groups of people: one group has information, understands how things work, has the inside line, knows what's happening,” she says. “And the other one doesn't. Which one holds power? If you want to enjoy the full benefit of citizenship, I think you have to have access to good accurate information.”
Sill says there are a couple of hopeful trends, increasing coverage in local communities with limited resources. The first is more collaboration between multiple news organizations — sharing content, working together, adding up their strengths together to identify key issues and provide a depth of coverage that otherwise would not be possible. One content sharing group in North Carolina involves 22 newspapers, others are between just two or three, but all provide the advantage of teamwork.
Sill says the growth of nonprofit news organizations is also promising.
“Figuring out, okay, ‘How do I provide service that people value and then give them a way to contribute to it?' We've seen that people will contribute to — as you all know from your pledge drives — they contribute to a service that they find valuable and important not just for themselves but also for society,” says Sill.
Sill is quick to add that consolidation isn't inherently bad. She says Knight Ridder, McClatchy, and others were once great newspaper chains. The difference is that they were run by people in the news business. She says as long as owners are set on taking profits out of the company instead of reinvesting in local coverage, the layoffs are bound to continue.