Respondents report Digital First/Alden papers’ job losses far outstrip national averages
By Julie Reynolds
“Old equipment, poor morale.”
“(We’re) now officeless.”
“Horrible. We’re not even a newspaper anymore.”
“Constant threat of being laid off.”
For the first time, workers at both union and non-union Digital First newspapers have shared their experiences working under the ownership of New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
They also hint at the horrific extent of accelerated job losses at Alden papers in the past three years — losses that dwarf national averages.
Forty-five workers responded to a voluntary non-scientific survey conducted by DFMworkers.org.
The questionnaire asked about job losses and working conditions, and especially sought input from workers at non-union Digital First Media newspapers, because historically there’s been little data from them. The survey gave workers who aren’t protected by union contracts a chance to speak up about conditions in their workplaces, and respondents were allowed to remain anonymous.
What the surveys showed was unprecedented job losses compounded by widespread morale problems and concerns that coverage has dramatically diminished.
One newsroom in a major city suffered an 80 percent loss of reporting power in just three years
“We have no managers, we are left to do are work without supervision. There are no meetings, schedules, or check ins,” wrote an employee at a small, rural daily. “Our editor doesn’t even read the paper.”
“Salary $15 an hour. The job is 24/7 with no backup. I haven’t been able to take a vacation in 4 years,” one respondent wrote. “I’ve had ONE day off this year.”
“It’s all about kicking out (press) releases and coming up with the goofy click-bait item of the day,” wrote one. “We don’t attend council meetings, rarely go out of the office, no (photographers), the list goes on and on.”
Another remembered better times in the years before Alden/Digital First took over the chain:
“I was there 2007-2010. Conditions were great. We had adequate staff and invested a lot of work in special projects.”
But the responses also highlighted the dedication and passion of those who remain:
“We are doing the best we can in our shrinking newsroom,” a photojournalist wrote. “I am now the only photographer on staff and have to write stories, edit copy, design news pages.”
“It’s a DFM newsroom — not enough people to do the job, but mostly full of passionate people who were working hard to do what they could.”
If the survey numbers are accurate, Alden-controlled papers are laying off newsroom staff at more than three-and-a-half times the national rate.
Unprecedented job losses
The responses came from diverse sites across the country that ranged from a California design hub to small-town papers in the rural west, large urban dailies, and weekly papers that no longer exist. Forty-five people replied from 33 publications and one design hub.
The numbers they provided, though not all could be verified, paint a consistently grim picture. In the past three years, the papers lost half of their newsroom employees, with 4 out of every 10 jobs lost across all departments, according to the responses.
Of the 1,318 employees listed as working in all departments three years ago, only 807 remain — a loss of 39 percent of the workforce.
The numbers are even starker in the newsroom. Of the 994 newsroom positions three years ago, only 502 survived, according to respondents.
That’s a 49.5 percent reduction.
The percentage at Digital First papers stands in shocking contrast to average losses in newsrooms across the country. The Pew Research Center reports that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was a 14 percent loss of newsroom staff nationwide in the three years from 2015 to 2018.
That means that if the survey numbers are accurate, Alden-controlled papers are laying off newsroom staff at more than three-and-a-half times the national rate.
In the survey, large papers like the Orange County Register reported some of the greatest workforce losses, with a reported 60 percent reduction in the Register’s newsroom (from 100 to 40), according to one respondent, and a 50 percent staff reduction overall. (Alden bought the Register in 2016.) These numbers, while unverified, are consistent with news reports of Digital First job losses in the region: last year, the Los Angeles Times quoted Frank Pine, executive editor of Digital First’s Southern California News Group, saying the group’s newsrooms have seen their staff cut “by nearly half in just the past two years.”
It appears the most severe cuts took place at the Boston Herald, which Alden bought last year. The Herald shrank from 140 newsroom employees to 28, a total verified by a union representative there. That’s an 80 percent reduction in reporting power in just three years.
There are only five non-newsroom positions remaining at the Herald: three salespeople, one sales/service admin coordinator, and a bookkeeper. (To be clear, one Herald employee mentioned ongoing management and morale issues that preceded Alden’s takeover.)
One rural paper listed only one employee, while several others are scraping by with one to three newsroom staffers.
Only one paper — the Marin Independent Journal — reported no newsroom losses, though it still showed a 20 percent shrinkage in overall workforce.
Although the newsroom losses seem disproportionately higher than the numbers across all departments, it’s important to note that three years ago, advertising, circulation design and pressrooms had already taken huge hits. Some of those departments have shut down all together due to outsourcing and consolidation.
It’s important to remember that throughout this historic downsizing spree, Digital First newspapers have remained highly profitable, as news industry analyst Ken Doctor has reported.
Besides painting a clearer picture of the effects that Digital First’s extreme downsizing is having on its workforce, the respondents also noted negative impacts on the newspapers themselves — and, in turn, on the communities they serve.
“We can’t always cover stories we otherwise might (and that would serve our readers) because there are too many competing demands,” one respondent said. “I frequently see avoidable mistakes in print and online.”
As we’ve often reported, the remaining staff at these papers continue to perform above and beyond the requirements they were originally hired for — even winning a Pulitzer and other top prizes.
But it’s impossible to deny that the severe staff reductions have taken a toll on journalism.
Filling in for a once-robust staff that’s no longer there leaves reporters “little time to investigate anything,” as one newsroom employee put it.
In fact, many reporters and editors have left the profession entirely, “looking for stability and better pay,” noted another.
The survey is ongoing. Click here if you’d still like to respond.