By Gregan Wingert
Mark Peterson knows firsthand the fragility of a job in mass media.
Peterson is a morning anchor on KXLY-TV in Spokane, Wash., and president of the Inland Northwest Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Two Aprils ago we lost 17 people in our newsroom and promotions department,” he said. “We had to cancel shows and coverage. It was devastating.”
Peterson said SPJ chapters have faced declining membership because journalists who lose jobs often leave town or the industry itself.
“We lost our backbone,” Peterson said during a meeting of chapter leaders on Sunday.
But consolidation does not always lead to layoffs.
The Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., both owned by the Tribune Co., have merged design desks, said Nicole Willis, an editorial assistant at the Orlando Sentinel.
“This was a good thing. Even though we’re in totally different cities,” she said
During that consolidation, the papers shared resources without cutting staff. But other operations have not been so fortunate when merging departments.
“The problem is that we’ve heard it before as ‘convergence,’ but it hasn’t worked,” said Geoff Liesik, an editor at the Uintah Basin Standard in Roosevelt, Utah.
He left the Deseret News in Salt Lake City in 2009, just before a company-wide round of consolidation.
In January, Deseret Media Companies, which owns the newspaper, KSL News Radio and KSL Television, began to consider a strategy for consolidation, Liesik said.
Shortly after those plans were proposed, the Deseret News laid off 43 percent of its staff; more than 80 employees from features, the copy desk and graphics department, Liesik said.
“They gutted the features desk. It was pretty horrendous,” he said
According to Liesik, the plan is for Deseret Media Companies to bring all three media platforms together.
“Everyone is going to have to learn everything,” he said.
Jay Evensen, an editorial writer and columnist who has worked for Deseret News for 24 years, said the layoffs occurred in late August because of budget shortfalls, despite a growing online readership and a steady print circulation.
“We were losing classified ads,” Evensen said. “That used to be easy money for newspapers.”
The consolidation process is still underway as the newspaper moves into the same building as Deseret Media Companies’ broadcast entities.
With a shortage of journalists, the quality of news reporting has also been affected.
The different platforms have different deadlines, Liesik said.
“But the web makes one deadline for everything,” he added.
Peterson of Spokane said the staff at KXLY-TV has adapted to the cutbacks.
“We learned that there are things we could do and new ways of doing things,” Peterson said.
Tom Haraldsen, an editor for the Valley Journals and president of the Utah Headliners Chapter of SPJ, is optimistic about the future of journalism.
“People still need to write,” Haraldsen said. “There still need to be reporters. There still need to be journalists.”
But journalists continue to watch as media companies consolidate their jobs.
“It’s a big risk and you’re doing it at the expense of people’s livelihoods,” Liesik said.