Yes, newsrooms are shrinking — but journalism is growing

The latest wave of buyouts has hit the New York Times newsroom, with the paper essentially paying about 100 staffers to leave, by compensating them with up to three weeks of salary for every year they were employed. NYT media writer David Carr has written about how difficult it is to watch one’s colleagues disappear in this way, and his feelings about it are likely shared by anyone who has been through a newsroom downsizing — as many journalists have by now.

There’s no question that the New York Times is probably losing some talented journalists, in an attempt to reduce its overhead costs and focus more on digital products. And it’s not just the NYT, obviously: Capital magazine put together a tally of just how many jobs have been lost from traditional newsrooms over the years, and it’s a fairly big number — almost 20,000 since 2008, or over a third of the total.

That said, however, I think we should be careful not to conflate the issue of declining staff levels in traditional newsrooms with the health of journalism overall. Just because thousands of people are no longer employed as full-time reporters or editors by a select number of mainstream news publications doesn’t mean journalism itself isn’t alive and well — and even growing.

To take just a couple of examples, since we’re talking about the New York Times: former managing editor Jim Roberts joined Mashable as editor-in-chief, and has been staffing up that company’s newsroom fairly aggressively, boosting it from 35 to 55, and looking to add more. That probably doesn’t appear in the above numbers.

New York Times newsroom, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times newsroom, photo by Rani Molla

Former executive editor Bill Keller, meanwhile, has joined a new-media startup focused on the justice system, called The Marshall Project, which has also been hiring. And his replacement, Jill Abramson, hasn’t let being fired slow her down — she and media entrepreneur Steve Brill are looking for financial support to launch a new media entity that will sell subscriptions and pay writers for long-form journalism.

And those are just a few of the more recent new-media ventures that involve former NYT staff — there are dozens more that don’t, including rapidly-growing entities like BuzzFeed and Vox, or even the by-now-venerable Gawker Media. Fans of the New York Times might not see these sites as producing anything close to the same quality, but there is no question they are growing, and hiring journalists.

There are others that tend to fly below the radar, whether it’s Wirecutter or the travel-focused site Skift. And there are crowdfunded efforts like Contributoria and Beacon, and investigative ventures like Bellingcat from Eliot Higgins, not to mention First Look Media — although its growth plans seem to be on hold as it deals with some management-related hiccups. And there are plenty of local blogs and websites that cover their areas as well or better than a traditional newsroom.

There are also vast numbers of amateur and occasional journalists on social-media platforms, many of whom are experiencing the things they are writing about. Are any of these going to replace the things that the New York Times or Washington Post used to do? Probably not. But the fact remains that the journalistic landscape has broadened, and that’s a good thing — and it means that mass layoffs from traditional newsrooms hopefully hurt a little less.