Newsrooms are vanishing, and journalism is worse for it

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Good journalism doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of research, fact checking, more research and, in time, carefully honed writing.

But behind the search for truth must also lie inquisitive minds — people who are convinced that “There’s a story here somewhere.” That’s where editors and newsrooms come in, and as print journalism struggles to maintain a place in today’s often fact-less world, the decline in the number of competent editors and reporters, and the dynamic newsrooms they have inhabited, is having an increasingly negative impact.

There was a time, not so many years past, when the newsrooms of metropolitan dailies were full of talented journalists, eager to tell the stories of their communities, of the state and of the nation.

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Today, not so much. In less than a year, Hampton Roads’ two metro daily newsrooms have been shuttered, the Virginian-Pilot in February and the Daily Press within the next couple of weeks. Tribune officials who now own the two distinguished publications say the Newport News closure may not be permanent. We’ll see.

If the closure is permanent, then the local dailies will have joined a growing list of newspapers across the land that have closed newsrooms and are relying on reporters working “from home.”

The Poynter Institute, which monitors media trends, reports that the coronavirus has caused more than 50 local newsrooms across the country to close, and the trend is continuing. Some of these newsrooms have been turning out news copy for more than a century and, in some instances, are the only source of local news.

The past 16 years have been brutal to the industry. Since 2004, according to Poynter, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. Of those, 1,700 are weeklies.

Other papers are struggling to survive, and the coronavirus is hammering them. They have furloughed or laid off reporters and sent others home to work in isolation. The decline in the number of reporters is horrific, but the isolation experienced by those remaining is a problem as well.

Until recently, virtually all of these institutions had a newsroom. It may not have had more than a couple of reporters, as many weeklies have had, or it may have had dozens of hard-driving journalists as the Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press both did until recently.

Reporters and their editors are at the heart of print journalism, but I submit that the newsroom, that gathering place for curious minds, has also been vital to the success of print journalism.

When I left the Navy, back in 1972, I worked briefly on the Virginian-Pilot’s State Desk. I knew all about deadlines and tightly edited copy, having worked earlier for United Press International, but a large newsroom was something I had not experienced. In it, I got to see the heartbeat of that newspaper, and it was something to remember for a lifetime.

Coming home to Smithfield after that was a bit of a cultural shock. Being the only person here to write stories for the paper for several years felt pretty lonely, but I collaborated with the owners, Tom and Betty Phillips, and that filled the void. I found that journalists and editors at dailies, even those who were competing with our small weekly, were open to exchanging ideas. And thus the collaborative void was partially filled.

In time, we hired a part-time reporter. Voila. We had a newsroom. It was small, but it was ours.

Modern communications have made it possible to do lots of things differently, including “work from home.” That trend will continue as it cuts costs and, during this pandemic, may well save lives. But there’s no question in my mind that the American newsroom was and is a vital part of journalism.

The newsrooms of the future may be “virtual” like so much else in our world, but in one form or another, they will have to continue if quality journalism is to continue.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is