news_chartThe chart at left has been on a lot of minds today and, rightfully so, showing as it does an Everest-like profile of what’s happened with newspaper industry jobs over the past half-century or so.

(I’ve purposefully made the chart small: you really should go see the original at Silicon Alley Insider.)

As someone who newspapered through the sharp ascent to the top, and got out right around the time the small shoulder appeared on the downward side, I thought I’d better offer a little perspective to stop j-students from abandoning their studies en masse.

As hard as the past two years have been on newsrooms, a lot of the decline in newspaper jobs since the late-’80s peak, can be traced to two developments.

One is technological. The arrival of computers at newspapers, which began in small ways in the ’70s and exploded thereafter, cost a lot of folks their jobs, primarily on the production side of the process. Every newspaper’s production rooms, once heavy with specialists on such wondrous devices as Linotypes, was eventually slashed and slashed hard. (Conversely, the workload in newsrooms increased as reporters and editors were now setting their own copy and laying out their own pages. There was no offsetting gain in newsroom jobs as production jobs went away.)

The second change was the result of increasing consolidation of newspapers. Even the smallish chains that I worked for (a dozen or so titles), found great savings in consolidating accounts receivable, payroll, classified ad phone sales and other business-related operations. Small newspaper staffs of five or six business-side employees disappeared. The centralized operations were staffed at much lower levels. Many newspapers shed much of their circulation department by contracting out aspects such as delivery, effectively killing the old-fashioned paperboy or -girl. And some consolidated the tattered remains of the production departments into production centres to serve two or more newspapers, shedding more bodies along the way.

This brief look back (and it is a once-over-lightly) might not make the picture any prettier, but we need to keep in mind, in looking in wonder and fear at that chart, that not all who have lost jobs with newspapers have been journalists. I suspect that until recently, the toll on production departments and the business side was far heavier than it was on the newsroom.

The two forces — technology and consolidation — are still at play, of course. And there’s nothing to say that trend line won’t keep moving down. It would be interesting, though, to see similar charts that trace employment other areas of media, including the increasing number of online pubs that are replicating parts of what newspapers have traditionally provided.

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