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American Journalism Review
It Can't Get Any Worse, Can It?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   March 1992

It Can't Get Any Worse, Can It?   

Layoffs, hiring freezes and closings greet the class of '92.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


Now that 138 daily newspapers have disappeared over the past decade, with others likely to follow, what are the employment prospects for the thousands of journalism graduates every year?

This question weighed heavily on the minds of journalism students at Washington, D.C.'s American University with whom I recently spent some time.

The students were extraordinarily engaging and serious about newspapering – people concerned not only about their careers but also about the fate of newspapers and the quality of public information that lies at the heart of democracy.

What I had to tell them was not encouraging. The daily newspaper business has been contracting since World War II for reasons such as competition from television and other forms of media and changing living habits that leave less and less time for reading.

And now a severe recession has scuttled at least a dozen afternoon newspapers owned by morning papers, caused 20 others to close or convert to weekly publication, and has forced hiring freezes and layoffs at others. The closed papers and the jobs they provided are gone forever, of course, and I suspect that much of the downsizing of newspaper staffs over the past two years may turn out to be permanent as well.

All of this means that job prospects are lousy this year and are likely to remain that way for a while. About the only job-seekers who will not have difficulty are minorities, since most newspapers rightly are still eager to improve their abysmal history of minority employment.

After I laid out this grim scenario, one student asked if there was any good news about the newspaper business. Yes, but it may not translate soon into a better hiring environment.

Last year was the toughest financially for the newspaper business since World War II, yet on average through the first nine months of the year (fourth-quarter data were not yet available) newspaper operations of the publicly owned companies earned 10 cents in profit on every dollar taken in. The newspapers included in this average account for more than 40 percent of national daily circulation and can serve, in my opinion, as a suitable proxy for the entire industry.

There were, of course, some newspapers that lost money last year, particularly on the coasts, but there were many more that maintained profit margins of 20 to 30 percent and even higher. The average 10 percent profitability in a terrible year is solid evidence of the newspaper industry's fundamental financial health. There are some industries that do not earn 10 percent even in boom times.

Another favorable characteristic of the newspaper industry is that, as painful as it is to close down unprofitable afternoon papers, the remaining morning papers became more efficient and profitable and better able to serve their markets.

Moreover, although the number of dailies dropped from 1,730 in 1981 to 1,592 in 1991, total newspaper employment over that period actually grew 9.6 percent to 506,000, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

Does this mean that some daily newspapers have been, at least until recently, increasing their staffs enough to offset employment losses from others closing? Not necessarily, because the total employment includes weeklies. And while the number of weeklies both paid and free dropped from 7,602 in 1981 to 7,476 in 1991, total weekly circulation in that period grew more than 33 percent to 54.7 million.

New and larger weekly publishers, chiefly those of free papers distributed around the suburban ring of most cities, drove out some smaller weeklies. These new free-weekly chains have become large and computerized operations with substantial staffs. In effect, newspaper employment opportunities have shifted somewhat from dailies to weeklies, with significant implications for budding newspaper people.

Like most journalism majors at large universities, many of the American University students have their hearts set on working at large dailies. Some hope that an internship at a sizable daily will lead to a job offer. Others plan to follow the traditional path of starting at a small daily and moving up over the years to larger papers.

No doubt it will work out this way for some of these students. But others in these tight times will find themselves forced to seek employment at a weekly, where they may find the pay and journalistic challenges less than what they had expected.

Indeed, getting a job even at a weekly may not be easy. One of the students had already spent time at a suburban Boston weekly. He had been one of 35 applicants for the job he got, which he said paid at a "near poverty" level. When he left, the paper received 150 applications to fill his spot.

What all this means is that only the most determined, and talented, job-seekers will ever find work in daily newspapering. For now, at least, this is the unfortunate result of an imbalance between supply and demand. l

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