Over the last decade and a half, we’ve been bombarded with reports about large and small newspapers cutting their staff, reducing their content or folding altogether. So last week’s report that The New York Daily News was laying off half of its newsroom staff shouldn’t really have affected us that much. And yet, this time was different.
“We are reducing today the size of the editorial team by approximately 50 percent and re-focusing much of our talent on breaking news, especially in areas of crime, civil justice and public responsibility,” the email to staffers said. The newspaper’s approach “will evolve as we adapt to our current environment.”
News gathering, as crucial a role as it has in our republic, is still a business. Layoffs and budget cuts are part of sustaining a business. And the news industry, particularly newspapers, has been difficult to navigate in a fast-changing culture.
Estimated U.S. daily newspaper circulation, both print and digital, fell 11 percent to 31 million in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. In the last three years, newsroom employment has decreased 15 percent.
The New York Daily News is not what many would classify as the traditional local newspaper. A tabloid with an obvious leftward tilt, The Daily News is known for its provocative covers and illustrations. It’s news that is also meant to be entertaining.
But it still conducts a local newspaper’s most basic duty: report local news that matters. And they’ve continued to do that while metro sections in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have all but vanished. Just last year, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing how the New York Police Department used an obscure civil enforcement law to evict hundreds of poor people from their homes without their being able to challenge the move first.
Fewer reporters subsequently means fewer stories like that coming into the light. Gutting local newspapers means there will be so many stories out there that may never be told, wrongdoing that may never be uncovered, and problems we may never solve because we may never know that they even exist.
If a local newspaper staple for 99 years like The Daily News is struggling to stay afloat in the news-happening capital of the world, how could one possibly survive in the rural, less populated areas of upstate New York, or anywhere else for that matter? That’s what makes this time different, and frightening.
The stories that will never be told in New York City, with all its important people, big money and public corruption, are reflective of the stories that will never be told in town councils and school board meetings in small towns and cities across the country that saw their local newspapers close down long before the email was sent to The Daily News staffers.
Indeed, coverage of at least 900 communities across the nation has been eliminated since 2004, according to the Poynter Institute. An ongoing project by Columbia University shows that in all of upstate New York, only six counties have three or more daily newspapers somewhere in them. All of the rest have one or two.
A 15-year-old study in The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization examined the relationship between government corruption and “free circulation of daily newspapers per person” in the United States. It found that the lower the news circulation, the greater the corruption.
It taxes the imagination to think of all the stories that already haven’t been told as local news deserts continue to spread. In a time when we need the free press more than ever, it is dissipating before our very eyes.
One day before The Daily News announced its mass layoffs, Harry Siegel published an opinion piece in the tabloid called “Why we need local journalism: Look around at how vulnerable we are right now.” In the article, he writes, “All told, there are just a handful of reporters left covering public housing, schools, transportation and courts.”
In New York City today, there are now even fewer.