We often talk about the closures of newspapers over the past few decades. Of course this is all happening at a time when the population has increased. So the number of journalists per American has declined even more. If you view local reporting as a public service, that means there’s been an even sharper decline in the adequacy of coverage. So I’ve tried to figure out how many reporters per population there were at different points.
The first statistics use the “census” of daily newspaper journalists pulled together by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). In 1990 we had one daily news(paper) journalist for every 4,490 Americans. Now (or 2019 to be exact), we have one such reporter per 14,250. The coverage density is more than three times worse. If you do the same calculations using the BLS numbers, which include all employment in newspaper publishing (including printing plant workers, etc), the drop is comparably steep.
Our Research Director, Jessica Mahone, calculated this a slightly different (and probably better) way: there were 22 daily newspapers reporters per 100,000 population. In 2019, there were 7.
Statistical notes: ASNE stopped counting in recent years so I extrapolated a 2019 number based on the patterns in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) numbers. I assumed that the daily newspaper reporter numbers would decline at the same rate as the overall industry numbers.
Is it misleading to do this only for newspapers? Doesn’t the surge of local websites counteract this? What about all those weeklies? I mostly did it this way because there is no full count of local reporters over time. But the evidence indicates that if we added in other categories the ratio would be higher but the trend line would be the same. Here’s what we know.
Weeklies: There is no census of weekly newspaper reporters. But we do know that the number of weeklies dropped from 7,419 in 2004 to 5,476.
Local TV: There were 29,630 “newsroom employees” in 2004, and 28,670 in 2018. That includes camera people, weather forecasters, sports anchors.
Local Nonprofit Websites: There are roughly 2,750 reporters. Most of those didn’t exist in 1990. So that’s all growth
So the gains in nonprofit news have so far been washed out by the losses among weeklies.
Those are not apples to apples on the dates so I couldn’t create a comparable “all local reporters” comparison between 1990 and 2019. (I’m working on that). But it seems clear that the number, and the ratio, would be higher — but the trajectory would be sadly similar. What all this shows is that the collapse of local news is even more severe than it seems at first glance.