The Human Toll of the 2019 Media Apocalypse
More than 3,000 journalists lost their jobs this year. These are some of their stories.
Being a journalist in 2019 meant working under the gun. In January, over a thousand journalists lost their jobs as layoffs hit Gannett, BuzzFeed, AOL, and HuffPost. Vice laid off 250 employees in February; New York Media laid off 32 employees in March; in April, G/O Media let go of 25 people. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune let go the entire staff, 161 employees, in May after the newspaper was sold to a competitor; in August, Pacific Standard shut down after a decade of publishing. No company or sector of news was spared. NBCUniversal laid off 70 employees in two rounds of layoffs in August and September. Spin Media Group cut 29 jobs in September and January; Cox Media Group, which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, announced plans to lay off 87 people in September. Sports Illustrated laid off more than 40 employees in October. In November, the Toronto Star and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had a combined 108 layoffs.
This story may very well be outdated by the time it’s published. In mid-November, GateHouse Media closed its $1.1-billion takeover of USA Today publisher Gannett. Both publishers quietly had premerger layoffs — in January, Gannett reportedly laid off as many as 400 reporters across the country following a round of voluntary buyouts, and GateHouse laid off reporters in May and August. In early December, after the merger closed, Gannett laid off at least 215 employees at USA Today and almost 40 other publications, according to Florida Times-Union journalist Andrew Pantazi, who kept track in a spreadsheet. Eleven employees of Pride Media were let go in December, including Out Editor in Chief Phillip Picardi, leaving only five staffers on the magazine. And The Atlantic sold CityLab to Bloomberg Media, in a deal that allows only a few employees to retain their jobs, and then only after interviewing with Bloomberg. In some cases, these layoffs are done very quietly: At Bustle Digital Group, almost three-dozen layoffs were planned in advance and then staggered over several months to avoid media attention.
2019 crystallized something media people have known to be true for a while: While digital media dries out in the wake of the VC funding boom of the 2010s, and the country’s regional newspapers are swallowed by corporate consolidation and hedge fund vultures, there is very little stability to be found anywhere. All told, according to The Columbia Journalism Review, 3,385 journalists lost their jobs in the past 12 months. (Business Insider has estimated more than 7,800 jobs had been lost this year, which were tracked from a company and employee statements and interviews, news reports, and may include non-reporters and editors at these companies. CJR’s methodology includes only layoffs verified by their editors, and will be updated.)
But having a number to point to at the end of the year can still feel meaningless — the tale of 2019 is that nobody was spared. This year’s layoffs hit big media conglomerates, small newspapers, and alt-weeklies. They hit politics writers, sportswriters, bloggers, daily news writers, finance writers, and fashion writers. You were as vulnerable to the tumult of the industry if you were at a legacy magazine giant as you were at a small-town newspaper. If 2019 signaled a change, it was the realization that not only is the ship sinking, but that there aren’t any lifeboats.
Driving westward through Pennsylvania on a stretch of land dotted by trees, hills, and rest stops along Interstate 80, you’ll eventually hit the Ohio border. The first major metropolis you’ll come across is Youngstown, the state’s ninth-largest city. This year, The Vindicator, Youngstown’s only daily newspaper, celebrated its 150th anniversary. It would also be the newspaper’s last.
On June 28, 2019, employees were told to meet in the conference room at 4 p.m. “We all know what a Friday afternoon meeting means at a daily newspaper,” Vindicator reporter Jessica Hardin told me. Some people thought the paper was being sold to GateHouse Media, and its employee roster would be cut in half. But in a meeting with Vindicator owner Mark Brown, they learned the paper had sought a buyer but couldn’t find one. On August 31, The Vindicator would shut down operations, laying off 144 employees and 250 newspaper carriers.
After graduating from Youngstown State University in 2017, Samantha Phillips was hired by The Vindicator to cover three small communities outside of Youngstown. During her two years at the paper, she covered everything from crime and local government to breaking news and education. However, even before the closure, Phillips had been contemplating changing careers. Journalism “didn’t seem viable long-term because of the low pay and job insecurity,” she told me, adding that a few weeks before the closure she had driven six hours to Washington, D.C., to interview for a communications position with a trade association. The two months between the closure announcement and the Vindy’s actual shutdown felt like “a long funeral.” Media outlets from around the country visited to eulogize the 150-year-old paper, and employees received a nearly endless supply of food from local businesses and Vindy alumni. Phillips got the job in D.C, and after watching the final press run with her co-workers in August, she packed up and left her whole life in Ohio behind. “I had been considering leaving journalism for some time, but being laid off cemented that decision for me,” she said.
Having a number to point to at the end of the year can still feel meaningless — the tale of 2019 is that nobody was spared.
While working on this story, I received literally hundreds of messages from people who wanted to speak to me about their experiences getting laid off in 2019, from outlets big and small. In April 2019, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its coverage of the shooting deaths of 11 people and the wounding of seven others at the Tree of Life synagogue the year before. But as Post-Gazette reporter and editor Rich Lord pointed out recently on Twitter, many of the editors who led coverage of shooting had since left the paper — many through buyouts, another way media companies have whittled down the size of their staff. David Shribman, the paper’s former editor in chief, is now teaching at McGill University in Montreal; Web Editor Jim Iovino is now teaching at West Virginia University. Politics Editor Donna Eyring and Features Editor Virginia Linn have also left. And City Editor Lillian Thomas is now at the Houston Chronicle.
One of the immediate problems I ran into reporting this story was reporters’ apprehension in speaking on the record. Many laid-off reporters and editors I spoke to were nervous about violating the nondisclosure agreements their former employers made them sign as a condition to receive severance pay after they were laid off or bought out. I found this to be especially true with those laid off by newspapers owned by Gannett and GateHouse.
In many cases, the reporters and editors who spoke to me said they tried to apply for other media jobs after getting laid off. Jessica Hardin was able to stay in Youngstown after the Vindicator staff got the news about the layoffs, Mandy Jenkins, who had just been named director of the Compass Experiment — the McClatchy/Google project to put digital news startups in underserved news areas — reached out to Hardin. Jenkins had chosen Youngstown as the project’s first site and hired Hardin as one of the site’s two reporters. The four other positions on the local team were filled by former Vindicator employees. “I only spent a long weekend being unemployed,” Hardin said. “And honestly, most folks I worked with landed on their feet.”
Others, like Lynne Sherwin, who worked at the Akron Beacon Journal for 24 years before being laid off earlier this year, took jobs at trade publications. “The Cleveland area has a ton of B2B publications, where a lot of ex-journos tend to land, and I’m now managing editor of Plastics Machinery Magazine,” she told me. “It’s a big change from features coverage, but editing is editing.”
But often, employees laid off from media companies switch career paths entirely. Some, like Chris Kocher, who worked for Gannett Central New York for 22 years, find themselves in professions with transferrable skills — like working in communications. Kocher was part of Gannett’s January layoffs “I was determined not to move for another media job, under the theory that it too could be eliminated at any time,” he said. He ended up in the communications and marketing department at Binghamton University, a job he says he was “lucky to get,” with a short commute and state benefits.
Still, other reporters and editors consider jobs even further away from media and their skill sets. Elizabeth King, a freelance writer who wrote for Brit + Co. until its layoffs this spring, hasn’t been able to land a job in media since being laid off. “I’ve had a couple of interviews with nonprofits that haven’t lead anywhere,” she told me. “I’m considering moving back to my home state and getting a job on a factory floor where a couple of my siblings work. I signed up with a temp agency a few months ago that has gotten me one day of work where I literally counted crackers for a snack company.”
Brendan Skwire, who wrote for Raw Story until he was laid off earlier this year, applied to some media jobs, but one outlet that wanted to hire him would have required him to move across the country, and other offers he received were too low to be livable. He didn’t want to go into marketing or nonprofits, so he chose a different path entirely. “I’ve been a musician my entire life, and a friend here in Nashville asked if I had experience with audio-visuals. When I said yes, he gave me the number for the company he works for. I was hired that day without so much as an interview, he said. “I took any role that was available, until I realized carpentry was my strongest skill. I asked to be promoted and was bumped up accordingly. Next week I’m applying to the union, where my starting wage will again bump up quite a bit.”
The toll of a layoff — both mentally, and on a person’s material conditions — can’t be overstated. Sarah Kelly moved from Kansas City to D.C. and worked as an editor for the Washington Post Express, the paper’s commuter edition, for five months before she was laid off. Kelly has been laid off from five jobs in the last six years. She says the cumulative effect of the layoffs has been traumatic enough that she has to address it in therapy. “The Express layoff destroyed my already strained ability to trust the ground beneath my feet. I have no reason to trust anyone in management at even the most reputable outlets,” she told me. “I can’t plan my life more than three or four weeks at a time. It’s severely affected my ability to develop my skills, find mentors, and cultivate a professional network. I’m always forced to reinvent myself in the first job I can find. And I never even get to stick around long enough to get good at that job before the bottom drops out again.”
Kelly says she made significant sacrifices to move to D.C. for a job that disappeared before her eyes. “I’m kind of trapped here on the east coast. I can’t really afford to pay rent and the other insane costs of D.C., but I also can’t afford to travel home to Kansas. Because of the timing, that means spending Thanksgiving and Christmas alone.”
“I can’t plan my life more than three or four weeks at a time. I’m always forced to reinvent myself in the first job I can find.”
Ryan Franklin covered the Cayuga County Legislature for The Citizen, a newspaper in Auburn, New York, from 2018 until the day after election day in 2019. Being let go was “a dull, double-edged sword,” he told me. “Thankfully, they paid me so little that I was still living with my parents at 27 and was on state-subsidized health care, so that hasn’t changed much. I just think of what would have happened if I had a lease on an apartment or kids under their health plan, which I would have been dropped from the day of being laid off. How is that humane?”
When ThinkProgress, a left-leaning news site funded by liberal public policy think tank Center for American Progress, shut down in September after CAP failed to find a buyer for the site, it blindsided some employees, including one who spoke to me on background. “I’m pretty stuck in the apartment because I’m cautious about how much we spend. One of the best-paying job prospects for my partner is in a city where journalism jobs aren’t as plentiful and I’m a little scared as to how it would all work out. Even if we don’t move, I worry that eventually I will have to give in and leave journalism to receive a steady paycheck and plan anything in my life.”
Several former editors and reporters I spoke to described a feeling of relief after being laid off, losing their jobs, and having to find new ones. “I miss the people, I miss the fun and constant buzz of a newsroom, and I feel less engaged than I did when I was reading news all day,” says Sherwin, the Akron Beacon Journal editor who now edits a B2B publication. “But I’m also relieved to not be constantly looking over my shoulder. It’s nice to be treated as a valued employee.”
The hedge fund managers and bosses at the top of the private-equity firms and the conglomerates that own many of the country’s newspapers are the adults in the room on paper, but when they streamline operations, lay off staffers, and downsize newsrooms while still trying to turn a profit, they fail to successfully replicate the thing that’s at the heart of any newsroom. After private-equity firm Great Hill Partners bought G/O Media this year, the staff of Deadspin quit in a mass-resignation after the interim editor in chief was fired for not “sticking to sports.” Since then, the site tried to keep publishing, but only under a vague “Deadspin” byline, and with approximately none of the joy or voice that made the website so beloved. The most recent dateline on the homepage is from November 4; the next day, on November 5, Paul Maidment, the G/O Media editorial director who oversaw the staff exodus at Deadspin, resigned. The site hasn’t published since.
Along with the consolidation and merging of media companies came the realization that the valuations assigned to these companies were ultimately meaningless. Vox Media bought New York Media in an all-stock deal in September. The all-stock nature of the deal valued New York Media at $105 million; meanwhile, Vox’s value was at $750 million. Vice similarly bought Refinery29 in an all-stock deal, in which Refinery29 was valued at $400 million, and Group Nine, the parent company of Thrillist, bought PopSugar in an all-stock deal that valued the latter property at $300 million.
The money doesn’t make sense — how can PopSugar be worth half of Group Nine’s $600 million valuation? But it doesn’t have to. Digital media companies have laid off employees, burned through their funding, pivoted to and away from video, failed to find an actual profitable and sustainable business model, and ultimately been forced to reconcile with the fact that they probably can’t raise much more money from investors who want media entities to scale like the tech companies they invest in. These high-valuation, all-stock deals become the only bloodless means of survival for all parties involved.
Along with the consolidation and merging of media companies came the realization that the valuations assigned to these companies were ultimately meaningless.
The post-layoff landscape of websites, magazines, and newspapers makes these properties look like husks of their former selves. The workers left running these media properties are stretched thin, and many are imbued with feelings of survivors’ guilt. At local papers, this can mean a reporter who used to cover one town or community now having to cover three or four cities. Online, it may mean churning out double the amount of blog posts to reach a quota. When a publication dies, sometimes the stories and reporting on those websites die too, if they haven’t been archived. Since Pacific Standard shut down in August, its website exists, but it hasn’t been updated. The top story on its homepage is from July 23, about the future of the Charleston-Gazette Mail, which ended 100 years of family ownership when it was sold to HD Media for $11 million in 2018.
Layoffs, reorganizations, and restructurings, and newspaper shutdowns have even greater effects on the communities they serve. Entire communities go underserved and reported. Sarah Kelly, the former sports editor for the Washington Post Express, said that the loss of a free commuter daily in D.C. hurts audiences who weren’t likely to subscribe to the Post. “The area is lucky to have other sources for local news (WAMU, DCist, and City Paper are all very good), but for homeless people and very low-income people, Express was often their only access to news,” she told me. “The most vulnerable readers are the ones who were most affected. For weeks, we got emails and tweets from readers about how boring it was to ride the metro without a copy of Express to pass the time.”
Since its shutdown, the Vindicator name and subscriber list were bought by the Tribune Chronicle, owned by Odgen in West Virginia. “The paper now prints a ‘Vindicator edition’ that covers Mahoning County. It’s not as comprehensive as the old Vindy, but it’s doing a lot to fill the void left by the Vindy. I’ve received a lot of feedback from longtime readers who are disappointed with the relentlessly right-wing editorial page,” Hardin told me. Back in Youngstown, other local news outlets have stepped up to try to expand news coverage of the Youngstown metropolitan area. But without a dedicated Youngstown newspaper with its own staff and resources, issues in the Mahoning Valley are left uncovered. And then there are technical challenges: It’s now more difficult to access The Vindicator’s 150 years of archives now that the original website is gone.
“The Friday before I was laid off, and half an hour after I received two separate tips about people dying at the local hospital due to negligence. What happens if corporate closes the paper and there’s nobody left to let the public know about abuses like that?” Ryan Franklin, who worked for Auburn’s The Citizen, told me.
“My favorite part of the job was when readers would email me a question based on a story I’d written, and I was able to answer it. I felt like a real part of the community when that happened. Now I’ve been replaced by an influx of posts about celebrity birthdays or Baby Yoda pushed by corporate to our website.”
Update: A previous version of this article stated that hedge fund Alden Global Capital eliminated two out of every three jobs at the newspapers it owns, including the Denver Post, in 2019. Those cuts actually began in 2011 and accumulated throughout the decade. We have deleted the incorrect sentence.