The story is largely the same across the United States as publishers have gradually pared their staffs amid the ongoing economic tumult wrought by the digital delivery of news and information. The news industry has shriveled far faster than coal mining or heavy manufacturing, as exhaustively documented by the news industry itself. Employment in newspapers alone has sunk by more than half since the beginning of this century, tumbling from 424,000 people to 183,300 in mid-2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
New York’s information landscape has been cushioned somewhat by the presence of neighborhood newspapers and websites, and its diverse ethnic and non-English-language press, which has for centuries been a bridge for the city’s many immigrants. But the devastation of local news in New York is striking nevertheless, given the city’s cultural, economic and historical importance.
The colorful Daily News, long known for its attention-grabbing covers and headlines, employed 400 journalists when investigative reporter Tom Robbins started there in 1988, with bureaus scattered throughout the city’s boroughs. At its peak, it published about 3 million copies a day.
With its latest retreat, the money-losing tabloid will have a newsroom staff of just 45, according to people at the paper. It closed its bureaus in an earlier cost-cutting move in 2015.
“It’s astonishing that this is happening in the media capital of America,” said Robbins, now a journalist in residence at City University of New York. “Local news is a direct link between a community’s safety and preservation, whether it’s putting a spotlight on the need for a new stoplight on the corner or on a corrupt city council person. We don’t have the legs to do that in New York anymore. The community doesn’t have the watchdogs it once had.”
The News, which is owned by Chicago-based Tronc, said it would refocus its remaining staff on breaking news about “crime, civil justice and public responsibility,” according to a staff memo.
Four English-language daily newspapers were published in New York until 1995, when Newsday ended its New York City tabloid and retreated to its Long Island base.
Since then, the tide has gradually gone out. The New York Times wouldn’t reveal how many reporters it devotes to metropolitan coverage, but the Columbia Journalism Review said it has shrunk from about 90 people a decade ago to about 40 today. The Wall Street Journal cut back its once-ambitious Greater New York section in 2016, chopping it from six pages to two. The New York Post, which like the Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has been a perpetual money-loser.
In November, local New York news websites DNAInfo and Gothamist were shut down by their billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, who blamed the sites’ demise on a poor financial health although reporters suggested a successful union drive may have actually prompted the decision (Gothamist relaunched earlier this year under new ownership).
The decline of local news typically means fewer investigative reports, which are the most time-consuming and expensive to produce. Coverage of institutions — courts, schools, local governments — suffers, too. So do the human-interest stories that delight or rally a community.
Some critics pointed to the loss of local reporting muscle for the relatively scant media attention given to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young woman who upset 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley last month in the Democratic congressional primary in the Queens and the Bronx.
“The worst of it is that the politicians know nobody is watching, in a state where everything from economic development to the electoral system is plagued by systematic corruption,” said Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief and a former New York Daily News columnist. He calls the News’s layoffs “the latest tragedy in a long decline.”
New York remains the home of most of the major broadcast and cable news networks and leading digital news operations. Yet the most successful of these — BuzzFeed, Vice, HuffPost and Business Insider, among others — aren’t focused on the police blotter in the Bronx or the stirrings at City Hall. They are geared toward national and international news, which enables them to attract readers and viewers from all over the world and the advertising dollars that come with such “scale.”
Local news has proved a far more difficult financial model. Small, start-up news operations have popped up for years, often launched by journalists laid off from larger organizations, but many of these remain financially marginal. Some of the most promising ventures, such as the statewide Texas Tribune, eschew the for-profit model entirely and rely on foundation funding and reader contributions.
In an editorial on Monday after the News’s announcement, Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote that the local-news crisis “has become an emergency, akin to a health epidemic, and time is not on our side.”
He added: “We need to move away from the arguments that the country should care about laid-off reporters or that the suits should be held to account. . . . It has to be about why the country should care if local news goes away, which is the trajectory we now find ourselves on. What are the effects on a democracy if local news is no longer in the picture? How is my life as a New Yorker going to be worse now that the Daily News has been so terribly hobbled?”
Among those laid off at the News on Monday was its editor in chief, Jim Rich, who had reportedly resisted Tronc’s demands for more cuts. Rich, a veteran editor, seemed to capture the dark mood at the paper with a tweet posted a few hours before the news about the layoffs became public: “If you hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark, then today is a good day for you.”