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On July 2, 2007, the financially troubled San Jose Mercury News told all its employees to stay home and wait for a phone call. The caller would tell them whether they could come to work at the newspaper that day.
At 8:09 a.m., the phone of reporter Janice Rombeck rang. “Janice, we’re going to have to lay you off,” said the voice on the other end.
Rombeck, 59, started in 1974 at the Wichita Eagle in Kansas as a copy editor and then went to the San Jose Mercury News — aka the Merc — in 1985. In the decade before she was laid off, she covered City Hall through the reportorial lens of residents and neighborhoods.
“Work is supposed to be what you do, not who you are,” Rombeck told me. “But for many of us, especially single people, we define ourselves by what we contribute to the world through work.”
Rombeck was devastated by the news, but she wasn’t alone.
In the subsequent four years, the Mercury News would fire almost 300 other reporters and editors. Those laid-off employees represented a small fraction of the journalists who lost jobs nationwide.
Since 2000, metro newspapers across the country have laid off an estimated 14,000 (out of 56,400) editors and reporters — a number that does not include journalists working for wire services, weekly newspapers or other media, all of which have suffered their own losses — according to blogger Ken Doctor, who writes the influential Newsonomics blog for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard.
There are simply fewer trained eyes on city halls, police departments, schools and corporate boardrooms. As Doctor writes on his blog, “That news-gathering ... is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy.”
Simple calculations show the volume of local news generated by Bay Area newspapers has diminished dramatically since 2000.
It’s a social time bomb with an economic fuse. From 2006 to 2010, according to Tom Rosentiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, ad revenue for U.S. newspapers fell 48 percent — largely because online businesses such as Craigslist, Groupon and Google ate their lunch.
“The crisis facing traditional media is about revenue, not audience,” Rosenstiel wrote in an April 7 op-ed in the Washington Post. “Journalism thrived in decades past because news media were the primary means by which industry reached customers. In the new media landscape, there are many ways to reach the audience, and news represents only a small share.”
The losses have been especially steep in the Bay Area, ground zero for the digital revolution. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, half of all newspaper jobs in the Bay Area have disappeared since 2001, compared with 36 percent nationally. A new study from the North Valley Job Training Consortium, or NOVA, (conducted early this year in collaboration with the San Francisco Public Press), reveals that 44 percent of current and former Bay Area journalists surveyed — more than 700 participated in the study — had been laid off at least once since 2001, a level that suggests journalists are experiencing a prolonged, sector-specific economic depression, one that has no end in sight.
But journalists like Rombeck are not fading into unemployment lines. Instead, they are collaborating and pioneering new editorial and business models, as Rombeck did last year when she launched NeighborWebSJ, which turns her old beat at the Mercury News into a new media venture.
My research as a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University reveals a tremendous amount of innovation, optimism and entrepreneurship among journalists operating outside traditional media companies like the Mercury News. But can these new media ventures make up for the local coverage being lost in the transition — and sustain themselves in the future?
Layoffs in journalism haven’t just affected the people who lost jobs — they may also have debilitating effects on our democracy.
“No one is writing about what I used to write about,” Rombeck said. “No one gets down to the grassroots level in a comprehensive way. They cover the city budget, but they don’t cover the impact of cuts on neighborhoods.”
Eight years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle’s investigative team included five to seven reporters. Today, the Chronicle has no investigative team, though it does participate in ad hoc investigations in collaboration with other news organizations — a situation shared by many once-spendthrift metropolitan newspapers.
By comparing staffing reductions and word counts, Doctor of the Nieman Lab has argued that nationally those layoffs translated into roughly 1 million (mostly local) news stories not written in 2010. Many of those stories might have been repetitive or trivial. But today local governments are operating with less public scrutiny than at any time in living memory, at least as measured by the number of daily newspaper stories about their activities. The disappearance of those stories may also be hurting civic life on a neighborhood level.
“Janice Rombeck did a really fine job when she was at the Mercury News,” said Joan Rivas-Cosby, chair of the Neighborhood Action Coalition in San Jose’s Five Wounds–Brookwood Terrace community. Rivas-Cosby said Rombeck’s stories brought people out to meetings and focused attention on issues that would otherwise have been invisible, as when a 2003 gang-related shooting brought elected officials and community members together in an effort that ultimately resulted in founding Selma Olinder Park. When the Mercury News started shedding reporters, said Rivas-Cosby, “it lost a lot of credibility with people. Now there’s very little going out to the streets and finding out what’s happening in the neighborhoods.”
The civic damage is difficult to measure, especially because innumerable digital operations have rushed to fill the hole left by layoffs in legacy media. The past 10 years has seen the rise of open platforms such as YouTube News, to which anyone can upload eyewitness clips; countless blogs by citizen-activists who have picked up some of the watchdog slack; and proliferating “hyper-local” sites that cover specific neighborhoods, including the AOL local-news chain Patch.com. And crucially, a few laid-off reporters like Rombeck are not leaving journalism. Instead, they are reinventing both themselves and local coverage, a task that involves pioneering new editorial and business models.
With seed money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s New Voices program, Rombeck says launching NeighborWebSJ has required her to expand her skill set dramatically. She is learning how to raise and manage nonprofit funds, build a website and market it to a local audience. “I cover low-income communities that don’t get covered anywhere else,” she said. “The opportunity for me is to provide that information and still promote civic engagement.”
Rivas-Cosby said NeighborWebSJ is filling a hole left by the Mercury News, albeit on a smaller scale.
She said “Janice’s new project is really helping to keep people connected — and she’s done a really good job of doing some in-depth stories,” such as ongoing nuts-and-bolts coverage of the city’s budget, which has proposed deep cuts to neighborhood services like libraries and code enforcement.
Rombeck isn’t the only former Mercury News reporter who turned her beat into a new-media venture. Award-winning food editor and writer Carolyn Jung started a successful blog called Food Gal. Her colleague, former Merc general-assignment reporter Frances Dinkelspiel, helped launch the hyperlocal site Berkeleyside.
“I’ve gained a lot,” Jung said. “I’m still able to report and write on the stories that I enjoy doing. I’ve also learned a ton. When I first left the paper, I didn’t know much about blogging or social networking. Now, I get asked to speak on panels on those topics, which still boggles my mind.”
Meanwhile, their erstwhile employer is now the flagship paper in a regional cluster of dailies, the Bay Area News Group, which publishes much shared content under localized mastheads. The strategy is to compensate for the closure of small-town bureaus by sharing content with papers that were formerly competitors.
“We don’t sit around at the Mercury News and dwell on the past,” said metro editor Mike Frankel. “We’re trying to be a lot more creative. We’re frankly working a lot harder. What we do now with a smaller staff I’m incredibly proud of.”
He cites Sean Webby’s award-winning investigation of police violence against racial minorities, which led to the retirement of San Jose’s police chief Rob Davis in 2010.
Rombeck said she sees a media ecology emerging in which neighborhood sites focus on ground-level news while bigger players aggregate that news and focus limited resources on longer-term investigative and explanatory projects, the likes of which she doesn’t have the time or money to tackle. That’s why she doesn’t see the Mercury News as competition.
That’s a common theme in conversations with Bay Area journalists these days: Competition is bad, collaboration is good. The Mercury News, like the San Francisco Chronicle and many other Bay Area dailies, actively partner with nonprofit projects such as California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, which raises money for long-term investigative projects and sells the findings to many media outlets, each one customizing the story for its audience.
In many ways, the economic crisis has brought out the best in journalism.
As part of my Knight fellowship at Stanford, I surveyed 170 journalists online about how they are financing investigative, explanatory, watchdog and analytical stories, projects I put under the umbrella of “meaningful journalism.”
My results suggested that journalism is becoming, for some, a form of social entrepreneurship — an endeavor that combines commercial and nonprofit methods to achieve social change. Participants overwhelmingly cited a desire to change the world in some positive way as their primary motivation for doing journalism, with financial motivations coming in last by a very wide margin.
This motivation matches the ways that participants’ projects were being funded: For example, the combined financial contribution of grants, donations and nonprofit media dwarfed the money directed to these ventures by commercial media by a factor of three to one. A stunning 71 percent of participants said that over the next five years, they felt that commercial media like the Mercury News would become even less important to meaningful journalism, while 84 percent said nonprofit media — like NeighborWebSJ or California Watch — would become more important.
The trouble is that these new collaborations and new media projects are not necessarily producing jobs with decent salaries, benefits and year-to-year stability. As one participant in the NOVA journalist survey put it, “I think there are a lot of opportunities but little pay.”
Another wrote of “hearing about former colleagues losing their houses. I feel lucky that I am able to keep a roof over my head. I really wonder if I will ever have another full-time job with benefits.”
About 70 percent of NOVA survey participants who lost jobs became freelancers. But as one person interviewed as one of the study’s executive sources put it, 85 percent of Bay Area freelancers are “not really making it.”
Even so, my survey found that journalists who are out on their own as freelancers and entrepreneurs are more optimistic about their careers and the field than those working for someone else.
“When you leave a big-name paper, whether it’s your choice or not, you kind of feel like you’ve lost part of your identity,” said food blogger Jung. “But it’s gratifying to learn that you can re-establish yourself even better than before.”
Rombeck agreed, even as she struggles to meet the demands of launching a new venture.
“In many ways I’ve never been happier,” she said. “I think this is the next wave of journalism. I’ve never believed in something so much in my life as NeighborWebSJ, where I feel like I can be part of the solution in a way I couldn’t be at the Mercury News.”
Even so, the future remains murky. “The final chapter isn’t written,” Rombeck said. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year from now.”
Jeremy Adam Smith writes about the science of prosocial emotions and behaviors for the University of California, Berkeley, Greater Good Science Center. He was a 2010-2011 John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Justice and Journalism, which provided support for his education coverage. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, most recently “Are We Born Racist?” and “Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood.”
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