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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Newspapers take more hits

By Tom Warhover
August 2, 2013 | 5:34 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Some weeks are harder than others to remain optimistic about the prospects for newspapers.

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On Wednesday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer cut a third of its newsroom staff. It wasn’t a surprise. The Plain Dealer is owned by Advance Publications, which has been shredding newsrooms across the country. (See New Orleans Times-Picayune. See Birmingham News. Etc.)

On Thursday, Gannett newspapers laid off at least 223 newsroom employees across 37 worksites, according to a list compiled by Gannett Blog, an independent site that follows the company.

Gannett owns newspapers in 33 states as well as USA Today. So 223 might not seem like much, compared to almost 50 at the Plain Dealer. But I’m sure one position is a lot in Manitowoc, Wis., or Marion, Ohio. At least one alum of the Columbia Missourian was laid off in Springfield, Mo., another in Burlington, Vt.

She had been hired last month.

The question this all brings us to: How does the decline of these newsrooms affect the health of the cities they serve?

The loss of watchdog reporting is most often cited. Philadelphia Daily News senior writer Will Bunch notes that Plain Dealer reporters kept alive the stories of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus long after they had been presumed dead. “In the clips,” he wrote, “you sensed that the journalists were more aggressive at times than the authorities.” Berry, DeJesus and Michelle Knight were held prisoner in a Cleveland home for more than a decade until Berry escaped in May.

Gone as well are too many beats that reflect the character of a community.  

On the Gannett Blog site, Dan Piller wrote that the Des Moines Register no longer has a full-time agriculture reporter. Sure, Des Moines is an urban city, but the state that surrounds it isn’t: Iowa ranks first in production of corn, hogs, soybeans and eggs, according to the USDA.

Piller told me he was the last full ag writer, and even then, he combined it with reporting on energy. (Iowa is also at the tops in things like wind energy and ethanol, Piller said.) I don’t know whether the job is gone forever, but there’s nothing listed on the Gannett jobs site.

In two weeks, a new crop of students will arrive at the Missourian's doorsteps, most eager to become photographers, reporters, designers and copy editors.

What do I tell them?

These Missouri School of Journalism students know that they enter journalism in uncertain times. Many of them, in fact, are tired of hearing about it.

I will tell them that there’s a need, stronger than ever, for journalism. I’ll tell them that the practice is still about serving the people of mid-Missouri.

And I’ll tell them to learn everything they can, because we just don’t know what kinds of jobs will be waiting for them when they walk out of these doors.