Decimated Newsrooms Spawn Guilt, Depression

Decimated Newsrooms Spawn Guilt, Depression
Sync newspaper boxes sit empty in a downtown Little Rock lot. (Tre Baker)

Last month in The Nation, Dale Maharidge wrote a harrowing account of what the journalism world already knew: Today’s daily newspaper industry is bleak, rife with depressed layoff victims, decimated newsrooms and survivors facing a scary future and a mountain of work to fill the void.

Maharidge described a “seismic shift” in which readers drifted away from daily papers’ news and advertising and toward the Internet, shredding a traditional and once highly profitable business model. Less than 10 years ago, 55,000 full-time journalists worked at daily U.S. papers. Last year, the total was 32,900, according to the American Society of News Editors. And while display advertising declined, dailies saw classified ads virtually vanish, migrating instead to Craigslist Inc.

Beyond business effects, Maharidge focused on mental consequences — on those trying to get new jobs in the newspaper field and those who have given up — and he pondered what it all means for a less-informed democracy and a public less likely to get the kind of experienced local reporting it once took for granted.

“What remains of print journalism is shifting,” he wrote, “morphing into a loose web of digital outfits populated by a corps of underpaid young freelancers and keyboard hustlers, Twitter fiends and social media soothsayers. Gone are the packed newsrooms. And gone, in many cases, are the older journalists.”

Here in Arkansas, the situation is not quite so desolate. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was long shielded by Publisher Walter Hussman’s insistence on keeping content behind a pay wall, and despite deep cuts in 2009 and some continued bumps, the paper is enduring.

But it and almost all other state dailies have reduced staffing, including the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, now owned by publicly traded Gatehouse Media. The Times Record was one of several former Stephens Media outlets that went through layoffs in 2014.

Few current newsroom employees would discuss it, but morale is an inescapable topic at the Democrat-Gazette, which shut down its free weekly tabloid Sync last year. Deputy Editor Frank Fellone, a 36-year mainstay of the Little Rock daily, said the overall mood is hard to assess. “I think you’d get a different answer for each person you asked,” he said. “Some are optimists, some are pessimists, others are more realistic. The paper is adapting to changing times, and in that it has a pretty good track record.”

A veteran Democrat-Gazette reporter agreed. “The whole industry is shaky and there’s nervousness, but things seem more positive lately,” the reporter said. “It’s good to be locally owned, without somebody from the outside watching the bottom line and pulling strings.”

In a notoriously hard-drinking profession, alcohol use is still prominent, journalists say, and Wehco Media, parent company of the Democrat-Gazette, cited pharmaceutical costs as one reason for rising health insurance deductibles in 2014. “We are averaging twice as many prescriptions per person than they experience in the average account with Blue Cross,” Wehco President Nat Lea explained at the time.

One retiree said that after he left the newsroom, his drinking decreased, his blood pressure fell and his diet improved.

Scott Loftis, an editor laid off at the Democrat-Gazette in 2009, said he was actually relieved when the ax fell. “I was not happy in the job, and I didn’t have the courage to leave on my own.” Now editing the twice-a-week Carroll County News in Berryville and the weekly Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs, he says “this is the best job I’ve had. It’s slower paced, and you don’t have the pressure of a daily. It was a grind, and whenever you made a mistake, you’d fear getting fired.”

Others who succeeded outside daily newspapering feel fortunate, but susceptible to survivor’s guilt. Donna Lampkin Stephens, cut adrift after the Arkansas Gazette was shut down in 1991, persevered as a freelancer and became an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas. “I have freelanced heavily,” Stephens said. “For several years, I made more money on the side than I ever did at the Gazette… I do have some guilt that my freelancing is allowing papers to cut positions.”

As a teacher, Stephens is “amazed that we still have a good core of students who are committed to journalism… While many don’t go the traditional newspaper route, the skills they learn transfer to lots of different positions and careers.”

The stakes are high, Maharidge wrote, even while conceding that journalists are not the only people who have lost jobs in a reshaped economy.

“But there’s one major difference between other workers and journalists — when the latter are laid off, the commonweal suffers.”