I just received a New York Times news alert in my inbox reporting that Tribune, the Chicago-based media company that used to issue my paychecks, has just hired bankruptcy advisers to try to stay afloat. “It is only the latest — and biggest — sign of duress for the newspaper industry yet,” according to the Times’ DealBook blog. The Wall Street Journal says on its Web site that a possible bankruptcy-protection filing, which insiders believe could come as soon as this week, opens “a new front of trouble for the newspaper industry.”
When Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast in September, I mainly followed developments through a @TrackingIke, a Twitter account constantly updated by reporters of the Austin American-Statesman. I found their updates to be more interesting, more informative, and more poignant than watching the same CNN reporters providing the same updates from the same exact spot hour after hour.
I’ve been tracking the devastation that’s touching down in newsrooms across the country in a similar way — through Twitter and Paper Cuts, a tremendous mashup that plots buyouts and layoffs, along with corresponding news stories and company memos, onto Google Maps.
When I followed Hurricane Ike, it was in the way anyone does — out of general concern for the people (and the pets) involved. Tracking the severity and frequency of buyouts and layoffs in the news industry this year has been far more personal for me. Although I work in advocacy communications now, I started out my career in journalism, and spent seven years doing the daily grind in newsrooms in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The Hartford Courant, part of the Tribune chain and the last newspaper I worked at before moving to Michigan and switching careers, announced earlier this year that it needed to cut a quarter of the newsroom. I remember a friend e-mailing me a list of who had taken the buyouts. There were so many names. I just kept scrolling and scrolling, wondering who was left to put out the paper and keep the Web site humming.
The storm — which ended up including buyouts and layoffs — passed through, and The Courant, which likes to remind the public that it is the country’s oldest newspaper in continuous publication (“older than the nation,” as the line goes), kept on publishing. As with any community after a calamity, the people left had to rebuild and move on, and my friends there continue to do great journalism, whether it’s good old-fashioned Fourth Estate reporting or providing the public with data on demand.
In more recent weeks, it seems as if grim news is announced increasingly frequently. In Lansing, Mich., where I work now, the Lansing State Journal was forced to make the difficult decision to lay off a total of 31 employees this past week in response to a weak economy, and as part of parent company Gannett’s national directive to reduce payroll by 10 percent. These layoffs follow cuts at Booth newspapers around Michigan.
When Hurricane Ike did its damage, CrisisWire — an aggregator that pulls content about disasters from Flickr, Twitter, news sites, blogs and other sources — hadn’t been launched yet. But it’s here now, and recently covered the Santa Barbara fires. On some level, I think it would make sense for CrisisWire to expand its definition of crisis and cover the newspaper industry layoffs — it’s a cliché, but true, that good journalism strengthens and protects democracy. The scale of these cuts is should be seen for what they are — a loss to a community as devastating as any storm.