Corrected: How Many Online Journalists in the U.S.?

March 16th, 2009; 10:10 am by Ryan Thornburg

Correction: March 16, 10:10 a.m. ET

Update: March 6, 10:44 a.m. ET

Following the news that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is likely to go online-only if it stops printing sometime after March 10, Ken Doctor wrote on his blog, Content Bridges, uses some loose estimates to wonder if newspaper newsrooms are about to go from employing 44,000 journalists to 6,600.

A recent scan of newspaper mastheads and some loose estimates of my own put the number of online journalists currently working in the U.S. at between four and five thousand.

*** WARNING: These numbers count ONLY NEWSPAPERS. They do not count TV stations and unaffiliated sites.***

Doctor uses an unsourced estimate that there are “44,000 journalists left in U.S. newsrooms.” From there he says “The PI starts with 170 newsroom staffers. Online-only, it moves to 22, which would be 12.9% of its print staff.”

Here are two estimates I’ve made of the number of people working in “online journalism” in American newsrooms. The first starts with a survey of North Carolina newspapers:

  • There are about 1,400 dailies in United States.
  • 47 of those are in North Carolina.*
  • 25 of the North Carolina dailies have a dedicated Web staff creating original content for their own Web site.*
  • A census of online mastheads with follow-up calls to editors gave us an estimate of 110 online journalists in North Carolina, or an average of a little fewer than three per paper.
  • 2.34 online journalists per paper X 1,400 1,399 dailies = about 3,274 people working online at newspapers in the U.S…. based on lots of interviews, I believe that most of those are white (95+ percent) men (60 percent) with 5-10 years of experience who spend most of their time editing text. Most of them do not have experience with multimedia, programming, online community management or SEO.

Another estimate, based on a national sample of newspapers and the belief that print should employ 1 person for every 1,000 readers (which, of course, changes with the size of the paper) …

  • A sample of online mastheads followed up by phone calls with the top editor at 143 daily newspapers across the country.
  • We found no dedicated online staff at 59 of the 143 papers (41.2 percent).
  • 61 papers had 1 staff member. They ranged in circulation size from 2,000 to 72,000.
  • 7 had 2 online staff members. (12K-67K circulation sizes)
  • 6 had 3 staff members. (6K-83K)
  • 3 had 4 staff (5K-144K)
  • 2 had 5 (12K-64K)
  • 1 had 6 (112K)
  • 1 has 8 (81K)
  • 1 had 10 (148K)
  • 2 have 14 (67K-106K)

So….

  • Average circ/staff ratio (including zero staffs) 1:21,000
  • Average circ/staff ration (non-zero staffs only): 1:15,000
  • Smallest paper with at least one online staffer: 1,805 circulation

These numbers may have underestimated the number of “designers” and “photographers” who are working Web first if their job titles didn’t contain one of the keywords that indicated that their role was specifically online (words like blogger, online, multimedia, digital, and Web)

The numbers also probably underestimate the contributions of reporters who are truly filing first and/or primarily for the Web. Editors at several newspapers insisted that they had no “online staff,” because “everyone works for the Web site.”

Based on my survey of the actual journalists, I do not trust editors who say their entire staffs work “Web first.” As I noted in an earlier post, I came across journalists whose titles strongly indicated that they were not just online-first but online-only but who refused to participate in they survey because they did not consider themselves online journalists. So, these numbers may also overstate the number of true online journalists.

If these estimates are anywhere remotely accurate, they point to a future of massive job losses at newspapers. Other elements of the future would seem to include:

  • Assuming all the current online journalists keep their positions, there would be only about 3,000 to 4,000 jobs* left for people who are NOT ALREADY WORKING ONLINE. Update: I’ve been reminded that the online staff of at least paper sees a future in which online natives are replaced by print natives with more experience in news, though not necessarily online news.
  • That the online staffs will have a much higher reader-staffer ratio.
  • That newspapers would not have the skills or staff capacity to create any sort of innovative multimedia, interactive or customized news service.
  • Most of the content will be related to drive by demand for stories about national politics, crime, weather, traffic, high school sports, celebrities (not arts… celebrities).

That original reporting would be replaced mostly by repacking of text provided by amateurs, semi-professionals, advocacy organizations, and wire services.

This is not the future of news of which I dream. So what am I missing? What data do you have that supports a brighter view of the future?

Correction: An earlier version of this post undercounted the number of daily newspapers in North Carolina. There are 49 daily newspapers that are members of the N.C. Press Association. Two of those members are collegiate newspapers.

The original post also mistated the number of North Carolina newspapers with their own Web site. Every daily newspaper in North Carolina has a Web site, but only 25 of the 47 professional daily newspapers in the state have their own Web staff creating content for their own Web page. The other papers either outsource their Web production or share a combined Web site with one or more other newspapers owned by the same parent corporation.

As a result of these two errors, the original post mistated my estimate of the number of online journalists working at newspapers in the United States.

There are 49 dailes that are members of the NCPA
-2 collegiate papers

47 dailies
-2 combined papers (Eden and Reidsville share a site)
—-
45 dailies
- 2 with combined staff (Morganton and McDowell share one person who does online production for both papers)
—-
43 dailies
- 5 papers that confirmed they have no online staff (Goldsboro, High Point, Lexinton, Richmond, Sanford)
—-
38 dailies
- 1 paper where “everyone works online” (Newton)
—-
37 dailies
- 10 for who we could find no online staff (Clinton/Sampson, Durham, Forest City, Henderson, Hendersonville, Lenoir, Monroe, Mt Airy News, Mt Airy Messenger, Statesville)

27 dailies
- 2 Freedom papers that had previously been combined with ENCToday.com but now apparently have their own sites (Kinston and New Bern)

25 dailies

47 dailies, 25 of whom I know have their own online staff running their own online site (53%)

Originally published: March 6, 10:13 a.m.

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