2023 was the worst year for the news business since the pandemic

Though layoffs in journalism are nothing new, the end of 2022 suggested that the media industry was headed for tough times.

As the holiday season approached, CNN laid off hundreds of employees. Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, cut its news division by 6%. The Washington Post, NBCUniversal and ABC News all announced layoffs for early 2023.

What followed has been a bloodbath. Though data from December is not yet available, the news industry has already seen more job cuts this year — 2,681 — than all of 2022 or 2021, according to employment firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. The firm has tracked a total 20,324 job cuts in media through November, the highest year-to-date total since 2020, which saw 30,211 cuts in the same time period.

Seemingly no medium or business model within the news industry has gone untouched by the cuts, and the list of news organizations that have held layoffs includes everything from magazines to public radio stations, trade publications to cable networks:

And those are just some of the layoffs that have received coverage. The list obscures smaller publications that are part of larger companies (The Buffalo News and Lee Enterprises, for example, or Gizmodo en Español and G/O Media). It does not include international publications (Bell Canada Enterprises, CBC) or outlets that are losing longtime employees through buyouts (The Dallas Morning News, KCRW, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Washington Post).

This is not the worst year on record for news or media, according to data from Challenger. However, it marks a sharp reversal from the last two years when layoffs fell and some news outlets even expanded. Outlets that had escaped layoffs in 2020, when the pandemic ravaged the economy, weren’t so lucky this year.

“I think in the beginning of COVID, folks were willing to be a little bit more creative to seem empathetic to the public in a time of global panic. They were willing to be more creative and do things like cut back on office spaces or do furloughs,” said Writers Guild of America, East vice president of online media Sara David. “But these days, I think that especially during Q4, when companies get a little bit desperate to look like they’re meeting goals and to make various investors happy, folks are turning to these really brutal measures in order to cut costs.”

Leaders at some news organizations admitted that they had over budgeted, forcing them to make cuts when their projections didn’t materialize. After The Texas Tribune implemented its first layoffs in its 14-year history in August, executives told staff that revenue was pacing down compared to last year. When Washington Post interim CEO Patty Stonesifer announced buyouts in October, she revealed that the paper’s traffic and revenue projections had been “overly optimistic.”

Many newsroom executives cited difficult economic conditions — “headwinds” was a word that became ubiquitous in layoff announcements — brought about by high inflation and a weak advertising market. Outlets have also struggled with news avoidance and declining audiences.

“I don’t think it’s one factor this year (that caused the layoffs),” said Jeff Jarvis, who taught entrepreneurial journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “I think it is the accumulation of factors, like carbon monoxide in the blood.”

The newspaper industry has been in a downward spiral for decades, Jarvis said. Many are still dependent on print revenue, but dropping circulation and the advent of online advertising have made that unsustainable. Moreover, many newspaper chains are controlled by hedge funds that have little incentive to invest in growth.

The U.S. has lost more than 130 newspapers — or 2.5 a week — this year, according to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Since 2005, the country has lost nearly 2,900 newspapers and 43,000 journalists.

“A lot of news consumption is happening on social media and even from search,” said Pew Research Center senior researcher Elisa Shearer. “You’re less likely to be getting something directly from a news outlet when you’re getting it in that way.”

Magazines have also faced a steep downward spiral this year, Jarvis said. National Geographic laid off all its staff writers in June, and Popular Science ended its digital magazine last month, three years after eliminating its print edition. Businessweek and The Nation both recently announced they would become monthlies.

“The form of the magazine as it existed is dying — maybe even faster than newspapers,” Jarvis said.

Even as news consumption moves online, digital outlets have struggled to earn revenue. Major tech platforms like Google and Facebook have dominated the digital advertising market, making it difficult for news outlets to make money that way. (It is a problem that some advocacy groups are trying to tackle through legislation.)

Digital outlets that had gained prominence in the 2010s, earning millions of dollars in venture capital funding, have struggled to make a profit. Just this year, BuzzFeed closed its Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom, and Vice filed for bankruptcy.

“All of these big digital enterprises that were supposed to represent the future of national digital journalism — they couldn’t make it work. And with the rise of interest rates, it’s the end of cheap money. It’s not really clear where the profitability is,” said Los Angeles Times internet culture and podcasting reporter Matt Pearce. “We have hedge fund-owned newspapers that have now outlasted places like BuzzFeed News. So that is indicative of how bad across the board things are for digital media.”

Streaming models have faced similar challenges, said David, who was laid off from Paramount+’s digital editorial team a month ago. Many of those companies have undergone mergers or sales in the past few years, or just shut down entirely.

One recent casualty has been the podcast “Stolen,” which won a Pulitzer earlier this year before getting canceled by Spotify just seven months later. (Spotify has undergone three rounds of layoffs this year.) The show was produced by Gimlet Media, which was acquired by Spotify in 2019.

“Stolen’s” cancellation is a “devastating reminder that layoffs are never about merit or talent,” David said. “It’s about corporate failure and mismanagement.”

In some cases, consumers have taken notice of the closures of certain outlets. After G/O Media shut down Jezebel, staff, former contributors and longtime readers penned remembrances for the iconic feminist site. (Jezebel has since relaunched under Paste Magazine.) BuzzFeed News’ closure similarly set off shockwaves on social media.

David said that many times, layoffs disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized workers. That, in turn, affects the kind of stories and content being made: “It’s really, really tragic for even the average consumer to feel like they’re just getting the same stories that are not at all answering to audience wants or cultural growth or inspiration or innovation, but feel algorithmic.”

Others may not notice the losses taking place, in large part because news consumption is now so heavily tied to social media, said Pearce, who also serves as the president of the Media Guild of the West. But the overall “information environment” will deteriorate since high-quality reporting often underlies online content. A TikTok video, for example, may feature an influencer riffing off a local news station broadcast, which in turn is based on a local newspaper investigation.

“It’s hard to describe the ways in which I think the overall information environment will only get worse, and I think that generative AI for the next year is going to continue to pollute the amount of garbage that we’re basically swimming around in,” Pearce said.

The layoffs of 2020 helped cause an uptick in newsroom unions, and David said she predicts a similar trend next year. The Hollywood strikes over the summer have also brought increased visibility to labor organizing, which could help fuel a surge.

Pearce noted that the main struggle this year for unions has not been organizing but contract negotiations. Many newsrooms that organized during the beginning of the pandemic are still bargaining their first contract, and even established unions are struggling to get successor contracts. The New York Times Guild and Washington Post Guild, both of which are decades old, held one-day work stoppages this year over protracted negotiations. Pearce’s own union has faced “aggressive demands” from Los Angeles Times management, and their successor contract is on track to take longer to bargain than their first.

The next year looks similarly bleak in terms of newsroom cuts, though there are some areas of hope. A coalition of donors has pledged $500 million to local news over the next five years as part of the Press Forward initiative. Local television also tends to experience a spike in revenue during election years, thanks to political advertising, Shearer said.

But there is no indication that the news industry will reverse its decadeslong decline.

“This idea that everybody can do what they want and everybody can do business as they used to do it? It’s just wrong,” Jarvis said. “We’re going to have to reinvent journalism at a different scale with different missions and goals.”