Newsroom employment at North American newspapers has been falling for at least a decade and a new Pew Research center analysis shows jobs have plummeted by half since 2008. While the recently issued Pew report covers the years between 2008 and 2019 and thus, predates the COVID19 pandemic, headlines over the past few months about media company closures, layoffs, buyouts, and wage rollbacks paint a dire picture.

Journalism is taking a pummeling. It couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

A new impact report on J-Source shows that more than 2,000 media jobs at about 100 Canadian news companies have been lost over a recent six week period. That includes newspapers, television and radio outlets. Fifty media outlets have temporarily or permanently closed, and 19 newspapers have canceled some or all print editions, largely because of advertising hemorrhaging. All this is occurring at a moment in time when the public wants and needs to be more informed than ever by objective journalists; indeed, StatsCan survey data shows that more than half of poll respondents say they are searching and relying on traditional media to get daily pandemic developments.

The J-Source data collectors state:

“What we found won’t surprise many who have been following the news. Still, the constellation of cuts is sobering. While these data aren’t absolute – our project will be updated regularly – we do know that at local and hyperlocal levels, the pandemic is accelerating what some are describing as a mass extinction event.”

As Peter Klein, executive director of the Global Health Reporting Centre at the University of B.C. said to me recently, this crisis is like a perfect storm.  “We’re in the worst global health crisis to befall us in our lifetime at the same time as the number of journalists is in steep decline.”

Empty cubbies with news organization labelsSix years ago, the Canadian Media Guild showed that 10,000 journalism jobs were lost over a five-year period. That was just the beginning of the legacy media bloodbath. Advertisers and readers have been defecting to the internet for years. But J-Source, a collaboration between the Ryerson School of Journalism and the Canadian Association of Journalists, shows the carnage has only picked up with hurricane speed because of the pandemic.

Just a few months ago, the big American newspaper chain – McClatchy – filed for bankruptcy. Postmedia – Canada’s largest newspaper chain – announced permanent newspaper closures, layoffs and wage rollbacks, citing the effects like advertising losses due to the pandemic. The wire services – so essential during any crisis – are suffering too. Canadian Press president Malcolm Kirk recently said this in a foreboding message: “Amid the backdrop of a sizable number of layoffs, wage rollbacks and cessation of print editions” the wire service is facing mounting pressure from clients looking for “payment holidays and suspension of billings.”

We can assume where this goes.

While the decimation of traditional media outlets has also been driven by factors such as advertising migration to social media and falling levels of print and digital subscribers, the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly put the last nail in the coffin of many media companies.

Even before the pandemic hit, media companies were eliminating health, science, and environment beat reporters as a luxury they couldn’t afford or asking health reporters to carve a wider swath with coverage of overlapping areas like environmental health and climate change. Journalism job losses, together with an all hands on deck approach, means that much of the pandemic coverage is now being done by generalists, not health specialists who have relationships with the best experts. Since the pandemic began, political reporters and generalists have been providing much of the coverage.

There have been no reports of hiring sprees although companies like CNN, which last year shrunk its health team, have re-upped for pandemic coverage, mostly by offering freelance contracts.

Len Bruzzese, executive director of AHCJ and its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, doesn’t know of an agency tracking the number of journalists covering health around the world but he said it’s clear the overall ranks have suffered. Because of the declining numbers of journalists, especially health beat reporters, the AHCJ has wisely recognized that its professional development courses on topics like interpreting medical evidence and covering public health must be offered to generalists as well. Recognizing that there are too few health beat reporters and more generalists being asked to cover the virus, the AHCJ even has a special membership offer for reporters who don’t usually cover health. The discounted fee gives access to pandemic coverage tip sheets, webinars, and other important resources like experts.

The pandemic has shown us that around the universe, our health and survival are interlocked – “One world, one health.” The outcome of this pandemic is dependent on contextual, investigative reporting by journalists everywhere in the world. Every human is dependent upon timely and accurate information which is why so many media companies dropped their paywalls to make COVID-19 stories freely accessible.

Like so many who have been tuning into daily news conferences by health ministers and other political leaders, I’ve been consuming copious amounts of news from many sources and feel well informed by coverage of the pandemic at local, provincial, state, national and global levels. But while quick turnaround press conference articles and compelling, empathic stories about how individuals are struggling within communities are necessary and worthwhile, media companies must also commit to deeper stories. There must be more focus on pandemic planning – or the lack of it – isolating the fault lines in each country around shortages of personal protective equipment, for example.   

The pandemic calls for an analytical approach to illuminate the bright and dark parts of ever-evolving government policies and decisions by public health experts. There is an abundance of knowledge and discoveries about COVID-19 published already, yet because of media contraction, a shrinking number of journalists, especially those who know how to interpret the technical information. On a recent day, for example, PubMed had over 20,000 publications on the coronavirus while Google Scholar had over 200,000, double the volume a week earlier. There are now thousands of international clinical trials on such things as novel treatments and vaccine candidates. 

The work of the best journalists we’ve been reading during the pandemic has reminded us why we need them, more than ever. But if the public shrugs off the plight of media companies, I fear that health and science journalists will be placed on the endangered species list.

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