By DENNIS TAYLOR
At the Mercury, a Digital First Media newspaper based in Pottstown, Pa., the newsroom once had 16 news-side reporters. Now it has four. The paper no longer has any photographers.
This type of downshifting is taking place in newsrooms all over the country, but appears to be more extreme at DFM papers. The few reporters who remain are now struggling to cover their own beats as well as several others, a phenomenon that carries unintended consequences for both news coverage and the mental and physical health of news workers.
“They just can’t cover everything anymore, and a lot of stuff gets missed,” Pottstown circulation supervisor Dave Levengood said. “There aren’t enough people to cover township meetings and school district meetings, and other important stuff. And if you stop covering local news, what happens?”
Just as importantly, Levengood wonders, is how public officials are behaving now that their traditional watchdog is overworked, overstressed or not even in the room.
“What keeps them honest if a reporter isn’t there, asking questions?”
At DFM’s Denver Post, which lost nearly two dozen journalists last summer, one veteran newsroom employee said the resulting increased workload on journalists means “more errors are getting through. We’ve got senior reporters here reading page proofs — we don’t have copy editors anymore. It impacts the people reading the paper, because the high quality that they expect isn’t there.”
Reporters who still strive to produce quality, in-depth work have to grapple with expectations of filing more stories per day just to “feed the beast,” said the employee, who asked not to be named. “It’s hard because you see a good story and you think, ‘how long’s that going to take?’ Now you’re juggling with all the other stuff you’ve got to do. It’s affecting story choice. If you’re looking at a piece that you know from experience takes two or three days to work on, you have to decide whether to do it.”
In Pottstown, Levengood shows up for work at 4:30 in the morning for a shift that once ran 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The newspaper outsourced its distribution department a year ago. Now it employs just four part-timers to handle carrier problems, so that task, too, has fallen to Levengood.
“Every department here is working with a lot fewer people. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does,” he says.
Levengood is the only remaining employee in a circulation office that had 16 a decade ago. The company’s last customer-service representative left in June, citing stress.
“We hear a lot of complaints from customers that it’s too hard to reach anybody… but there’s literally nobody at our paper to take those calls anymore,” said Levengood, who has worked for The Mercury almost 42 years.
Even the paper’s maintenance man accepted a buyout last summer after being told he’d be gone in a year.
The situation in Pottstown and Denver is typical of DFM newspapers all over the country. Employees say staffing and other resources have been slashed while expectations remain lofty, stress levels are through the roof, and morale is at rock-bottom.
“What’s happening at our newspaper is sort of like the frog that is slowly being boiled to death by increasing the temperature little by little,” said Claudia Melendez Salinas, one of just six remaining reporters (five in news, one in sports) at the Monterey Herald in California.
“In a way, I think our readers have gotten used to the slow death, and they’re sad. They lament it,” she said. “But as long as the owners keep getting profits from these newspapers — which they still do — they’ll continue to exploit it without caring about the readers or anything other than those profits.”
A sports reporter, editorial assistant and two editors have left the Herald newsroom since February and were not replaced. One of those editors handled the online edition of the newspaper, and also doubled on a volunteer basis as the newsroom’s Internet Technology person, dealing with computer issues. As a result of that departure, Melendez Salinas said, one employee recently couldn’t access work email and waited two days for help with a computer log-in issue.
The Herald newsroom today is a ghost town of empty desks where former staffers once sat.
What the surviving reporters got, instead of reinforcements, were expectations they would now write a minimum of two stories per day, along with at least one iPhone photo.
“I would describe morale at the Herald as horrible. There’s just so much work,” Melendez Salinas said. “It’s been bad in the past, but it’s never been this low.”
The Herald’s two-story-a-day expectations add to the pressure, she said, because reporters now feel rushed to meet deadlines without enough time to double-check facts and interview additional sources.
Exacerbating the problem, DFM has eliminated all but one of the Herald’s in-house copy editors, outsourcing that work to a universal desk of editors in Chico, Calif. — 270 miles from Monterey. That crew, also perpetually overworked, reads copy for multiple DFM newspapers every day.
Communities are paying a price, as citizens try to make informed decisions with far less news coverage than ever before.
At Harvard’s Nieman Lab, news industry watchdog Ken Doctor recently looked at the impact of drastic downsizing at the nation’s 1,300-plus local dailies on the 2016 election.
“Those dailies approached the election emaciated, their weakness exacerbated by 10 years of disinvestment…It’s in that local press that Americans long got their basic news, the basic facts that informed their voting habits,” Doctor reported. “We can’t cut the number of journalists in the American daily workforce in half…and expect no loss.”
In addition to the growing deficiencies in coverage, the risk of errors naturally increases with higher workloads.
“You’ve got this perfect storm of factors that are contributing to a real stress load,” said Carl Hall, a News Guild representative in San Francisco. “That stress load inevitably is going to cause mistakes to happen as people get in a frenzy to meet deadlines. It’s going to cause physical, mental and emotional damage.
“The employees often are the people who are most concerned about editorial quality and customer service,” Hall said. “They’re not willing to put out sub-standard work, and they’ll do whatever they feel like they have to do to get that story done and get it done right. That often means free overtime, missing breaks, working nights and weekends… whatever.”
Hall says the digital age has made reporters attached to their jobs 24/7 via smart phones and laptops.
“I see it again and again: People drive themselves to the point of exhaustion, trying to maintain their own standards of quality after the employer has cut and cut and cut,” Hall said. “And they really end up paying a price for those standards.”
Melendez Salinas says she’s acutely aware of the problem and tries not to work after her work hours. But she acknowledges that’s usually not realistic.
“I regularly find myself checking email, returning phone calls, or doing other work-related things during off hours,” she said. “I think we all do that because we care about our work, and because the people who are reading our work also care.”
And it’s not just reporters struggling to keep quality high.
“In my case, I feel like all we do is put out fires, because we don’t have time to do anything else,” Levengood said of his paper’s circulation department. “We’re always behind, but, hey, that’s their choice…‘What do you want me to do? And what don’t you want me to do?’ That’s what it’s come to.”
Bottom line, the NewsGuild’s Hall said, is that news workers are “trying to do everything the readers demand, and they’re trying to do those things with far fewer resources than they once had.
“That’s the story with all media, and it’s worse in Digital First.”
Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer living near Monterey, Calif. He was laid off by the Monterey Herald on Feb. 5, after 18 1/2 years of service.
DFMworkers editor Julie Reynolds contributed to this story.