Several newspapers hit by layoffs, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner pursuing non-profit status

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: Your humble editor worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner from July 2011 to June 2017. He still frequently does freelance work for the paper, producing a biweekly video game column, infrequent news coverage and regular magazine work. Freelance work aside, he would very much like to see the paper succeed for the sake of the Fairbanks community and Alaska as a whole.

The new year brought bad news for Alaska’s media landscape after several of the state’s newspapers announced their newsrooms have been hit with layoffs.

The newsrooms of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Juneau Empire and the Peninsula Clarion have all seen layoffs over the past month, eliminating photographers, sports reporters and other production-focused staff. There have not yet been layoffs affecting traditional news or political reporting, according to people familiar with the cuts (though the reductions will surely put additional pressure on the rest of the newsrooms).

The cuts come as the papers struggle to find financial stability amid declining advertising revenues and efforts to get users to subscribe to digital editions.

The Juneau Empire announced last week that it had eliminated two positions—long-time photographer Michael Penn (a familiar face in the Capitol Building) and sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth—as part of a plan to hire an advertising director “who will help us better compete in this emerging digital era.”

The Empire and the Clarion are both owned by the Washington-based Sound Publishing, Inc. The Clarion reportedly has eliminated a sports reporting position.

The News-Miner announced in a story published this morning that it had laid off four employees in December, the first time the paper has had been forced to make such cuts since it was purchased by a community nonprofit in 2016. It didn’t specify which positions, but the eliminations included the paper’s photographer and several production positions.

“With reduced traditional revenues over the past three years, some tough decisions had to be made after a complete review of all operations,” Virginia Farmier, the trustee of the Helen E. Snedden Foundation, told the paper. “Some layoffs were made, along with other streamlining processes, renegotiating vendor contracts and in some cases changing services.”

‘Additional means’

Both the Empire and the News-Miner make appeals to the readers to subscribe to digital editions of the paper to help keep the papers funded, but the News-Miner says it will be taking it a step further.

“Community support could eventually come through an additional means. The company will be applying to the Internal Revenue Service this year to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation as a community asset, which could open the possibility of receiving grants and other types of financial support,” explains the News-Miner story.

Nonprofit journalism has found success in recent years, particularly in the realms of investigative journalism. ProPublica, a national investigative nonprofit, has recently partnered with the Anchorage Daily News to produce its Lawless series. The News-Miner worked with Rasmuson Foundation on its Paths to Recovery series (which I worked on).

But such shifts aren’t without their own issues.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently explored the relationship between nonprofit news outlets and the foundations that back them, interviewing 40 journalists at nonprofits and employees at the foundations. Its takeaway was somewhat surprising, finding that the most uncomfortable aspect of the relationships didn’t have to do with traditional editorial influence but with expectations on how the reporting is conducted.

“We found that foundation funding did not push journalists to pursue or avoid specific topics with their reporting—perhaps the most obvious form of editorial influence,” explained the report. “Instead, foundation funding was tied with the methods that journalists utilized for their reporting.”

The report found that it extended to flash-in-the-pan technological solutions, high expectations for community engagement and additional responsibilities for already-busy reporters. The takeaway is that outlets must be thoughtful about the kind of additional expectations that foundation funding brings with it, especially when it comes to impacting how reporters and editors allocate their time.

Still, with it cast against the backdrop of cash-strapped media outlets, one journalist put it best: “When money is offered, we listen.”

Why it matters

Newspapers continue to face a lot of uncertainty, and that means uncertainty for reporters, editors and other staff. While papers are turning more and more to their communities for support, cutting positions like this ultimately undermine the product. Quality photography and sports reporting positions are some of the strongest ways for a paper to build a connection to their community.

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