Darrel Rowland was the Columbus Dispatch’s longest-serving news journalist when Edwina Blackwell Clark, the paper’s executive editor, called him into her office in August.
It was the day after the staff learned Gannett, the Dispatch’s parent company, had learned the paper would be affected by the conglomerate’s disappointing second fiscal quarter. Changes and cuts were coming – the staff knew that. However, leadership assured their newsroom the effect would be limited.
But Rowland could hear the “ice cracking” beneath his feet, he said, as he stepped into Clark’s office. And when she turned her laptop toward Rowland, revealing human resources on a video conference, he knew it was over.
“I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised,” Rowland told GJR. “I considered what I was doing as pretty vital to the paper.”
Rowland was one of the approximately 400 journalists Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, laid off last month – roughly 3% of its U.S. workforce – after losing $54 million on revenues of $749 million in the second quarter. In the aftermath, these former Gannett journalists are hitting the job market – forced to find work in an ever-shrinking industry or leave journalism entirely to make ends meet.
Gannett publishes USA Today and more than 200 papers, including the State Journal-Register in the Illinois capital and the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.
“We’ve been transparent about the need to evolve our operations and cost structure in line with our growth strategy while also needing to take swift action given the challenging economic environment,” Gannett’s chief communications officer Lark-Marie Antón said in an email.
Between the pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022, more than 360 newspapers closed, a report by Medill’s Local News Initiative found. That is the reality that laid off journalists are facing. There are simply fewer traditional newspaper jobs. Since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025, according to the report released this summer.
The layoffs don’t just affect journalists, either. As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote recently, “The layoffs are a blow not only to the men and women who have lost their jobs but also to the readers who relied on them to keep them informed, to keep their elected officials and business leaders honest, and to provide the glue that brings neighbors together as a community.”
Rowland is one of the lucky ones. His phone started ringing days after being laid off, with local TV news stations and research firms showing interest in his award-winning reporting and over 20 years of editing experience.
“I’m so blessed to have the luxury of choices,” Rowland said. “It’s something I never thought I would say to be honest with you.”
Beth Welbers, the former editor for the Geneseo Republic in western Illinois, is still looking for a job in the weeks since she was laid off. She has no strong leads as of yet.
Before her 40-plus years in long-haul truck transportation, Welbers studied journalism in college. In 2019, an editing opportunity at the Republic opened up on a contract basis. Two years later, she was brought on staff full-time. She called her experience at the paper “nothing short of fun.”
“One of my daughters had given me a little bit of advice: ‘When you are out of work, your job is to find a job,'” Welbers said.
She took it to heart. Welbers wakes up every morning, grabs a cup of coffee and heads to her downstairs desk, where she combs through job boards. She said she would love to find a job in journalism but is keeping her options open – limited by her need for remote work to care for her 86-year-old mother.
“A lot of technical writing, as well as advertising jobs seem to be available, but I am comfortable in local journalism,” she said.
Welbers is also staying updated with the Gannett Layoff Community Aid Network, a group of current Gannett journalists providing support – including financial assistance and career advice – to their former colleagues. The network runs on two Google forms – one for laid-off journalists to request aid and the other for those who want to help.
“Basically tell us what you need, and we will figure it out,” said Katherine Kokal, the education reporter for The Palm Beach Post and NewsGuild union member who organized the forum.
The network has made a difference, according to Kokal, distributing over $7,000 in emergency monetary aid. The group also organizes job fairs and provides an interactive job board – efforts that have landed at least two people jobs so far, Kokal said.
Kokal was expecting a need for assistance in the aftermath of the mass layoffs – it’s why she started the forum. “What I was not expecting is that 150 People would message me asking how they can help,” she said.
“Even though we compete against each other, we really care about each other,” Kokal said.
Current and former journalists outside of Gannett have also rallied around those who the company laid off in August. On Wednesday, the Education Writers Association, the professional organization dedicated to advancing high-quality education journalism, hosted a webinar, “Reporters: You’ve Been Laid Off. Now What?” centered around the recent Gannett layoffs.
The event was moderated by Kavitha Cardoza, public editor of the EWA, and featured presentations with tips for laid-off journalists. One of the speakers was Theola DeBose, a former Washington Post journalist who founded JSkills– a company that provides tools and guidance to journalists looking to change careers.
“As we all know, journalists watch other people – they don’t get involved,” DeBose said. “So, what happens when it’s time to change careers, either by force or by choice? You have to actually do something.”
DeBose’s advice focused on three tips: let go of your “observer identity,” set a goal and “create the future” by leveraging the transferable skills gained being a journalist. She also addressed any hesitations people might have about switching career paths.
During “the journey that you are about to go on to figure out what’s next, you will grapple with identity during that journey, guaranteed,” she said. “But just remember, it does not say (journalist) on your birth certificate.”
Still, some people will never be able to let go of journalism. Rowland, for example, still feels like he has more to contribute to the industry and, in turn, his community.
“I don’t want to be full of myself, but I feel like I can make at least a little contribution to this huge need that I see out there for my neighbors, for my community, for these people I’ve been writing for all these years,” he said.
Zachary Jarrell is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist and managing editor of The News Record, the University of Cincinnati’s student newspaper. His work has been featured in the Washington/Los Angeles Blade, the CIncinnati Business Courier and others. Find him on Twitter @jarrell_zach