Year-End Review: 5 Top Media Stories of 2019

Looking Back: Media Trends of 2019

As we near the end of 2019, we’re looking back at some of the top stories that drove the media industry.

Unfortunately, it was another year full of layoff announcements among legacy print and digital outlets alike. The large amount of corporate consolidations, some of them massive, hasn’t helped instill a sense of job security for most.

However, 2019 saw media staffers across the country taking a stand with unionization efforts. They demanded equal pay, diversity, and more transparency from management.

With newsroom staffs shrinking and the demand for news growing, many publishers began looking toward the future by employing new technologies in hopes of saving costs and making their processes more efficient. Many also ventured into the podcast space in efforts to boost advertising revenues and reach new audiences.

While these aren’t all the big media stories of the year, they are sure to shape the industry in the future.

Let’s review each of these trends in more detail.

1. The Year of Media Consolidation

The year saw several notable mergers of media companies looking to make themselves more appealing to advertisers and compete with Facebook and Google.

The Disney-Fox merger kicked off the year with a massive $71.3 billion deal, effectively taking the number of big movie studios in Hollywood from six to five.

To better compete with Disney, CBS and Viacom finalized their long-anticipated $25 billion reunion in recent weeks. Shari Redstone, the board chairwoman, recently described the combined company as a “global content powerhouse” with an “incredible library.”

Toward the end of the year, the acquisition announcements came hard and fast:

  • Vox Media acquired New York Media in an all-stock transaction. New York Media publishes New York Magazine and is home to popular digital sites like The Cut and Vulture.
  • Vice Media acquired Refinery 29, the female-skewing digital media business, for a reported $400 million.
  • PopSugar, valued at more than $300 million, was acquired by Group Nine Media. According to TechCrunch, “Group Nine says the combined organizations will reach an audience of more than 200 million social media followers.”
  • The FCC approved Nexstar’s pending acquisition of Tribune Media. The $6.4 billion deal will make Nexstar the largest TV station operator of Fox-affiliated stations, covering 16% of the U.S. and more than 17.5 million households.

But perhaps the most crucial merger for journalists was the consolidation of GateHouse and Gannett, the two largest newspaper publishers in the country. Shareholders of both companies approved the deal in November, and it closed on Nov. 19. The new company owns about one of every six American newspapers.

The full scope of fallout from the GateHouse-Gannett merger is yet to be seen, but it’s expected that the new Gannett will let go about 4% of its 24,000 employees — about 960. In a statement, the union representing staffers predicts the reported $300 million in savings will result in wage cuts and layoffs and says “journalism will suffer.” Initial rounds of layoffs began at the beginning of December.

2. Layoffs & Shutdowns

2019 was another tough year for the media industry in terms of layoffs. Over 2,000 people lost their jobs in January alone.

As legacy publications continued to struggle and mega-merger headlines became more common, more and more journalists found themselves out of work throughout the year.

Halfway through the year, Bloomberg reported that journalism job cuts were already on pace to be the worst in a decade, with about 3,000 people either laid off or offered buyouts.

Andrew Challenger, vice president of Pew Research Center, told Bloomberg, “In most industries, employers can’t find enough people to fill the jobs they have open. In news, it has been the opposite story. And it seems to have been accelerating.”

Some of the newsrooms that announced layoffs in 2019 include:

  • Verizon Media Group: In January, the company announced the layoffs of nearly 800 employees, or 7% of its workforce. Verizon also announced in August that the hyperlocal Fios1 News would no longer be offered, affecting 150 staffers. HuffPost, owned by Verizon, announced layoffs of 11 full-time employees and two contractors in its video department in October, the second round of cuts at the publisher this year. Just last week, 150 additional cuts were announced across the organization.
  • Vice: Vice cut 250 staff members in January following Disney’s write-down of its stake in the company in late 2018. However, after announcing $250 million in debt funding, Vice made more changes over the summer by posting several editorial job openings and made several executive changes.
  • Reading Eagle: After filing for bankruptcy in March, the family-owned Pennsylvania newspaper alerted staff in June to projected layoffs over more than 200 employees.
  • Newsday: In July, the newspaper offered staff voluntary buyouts as it shifted focus to transforming into a “leading-edge multimedia and multiplatform content generation machine.”
  • Gawker: After a failed attempt at relaunching Gawker, the news and gossip website, new owner Bustle Digital Group announced the entire staff was laid off in July.
  • NPR: In order to “more fully lean into our role as a public service organization,” NPR announced cuts to about 10 positions in August. The changes were reportedly more about “realignment” than saving money.
  • GateHouse/Gannett: In the first of what is sure to be multiple rounds of layoffs, four newspapers were hit with layoffs shortly after the merger was announced in August. This came after the slashing of several dozen positions at GateHouse in May.
  • Sports Illustrated: About 40 positions, nearly half the newsroom, were cut in October by TheMaven Inc., the publication’s new licensor. In the backlash, three quarters of SI’s journalists signed a petition against TheMaven taking control.
  • G/O Media: G/O Media, owner of most of the old Gawker Media assets, was in the news a lot in 2019. Among the chaos was the shuttering of Splinter in October and layoffs/resignations of the entire editorial staff at Deadspin after an internal memo told staff to “stick to sports.”
  • Meredith: In October, the publisher announced the end of Family Circle after its December issue and the elimination of 70 jobs, including about 25 from FC. Shortly after announcing the cuts, upper editor positions were reshuffled at Real Simple and Parents, also Meredith properties.
  • Tampa Bay Times: Poynter reported in October that seven journalists were laid off by the newspaper. To further save costs, the national and local sections will be combined in Monday-Saturday print editions. Executive Editor Mark Katches told Poynter, “It’s never easy to say goodbye to great colleagues. No one wins when local journalism jobs are lost.”
  • Bustle: About 10 staffers and contributors were laid off in November. The site is reportedly preparing for a major relaunch in 2020.

Several publications also announced complete closures this year, including The Improper Bostonian, Gay Star News, Governing, Pacific Standard, and the Journal Tribune (Maine).

By December, the total number of media jobs lost in 2019 skyrocketed to almost 8,000, according to Bloomberg.

3. Unionization Efforts Continue

In 2019, the wave of media staffers forming unions kept on rolling. Although it hasn’t prevented layoffs outright, organizing in digital media did come with its benefits.

According to Digiday, “Unions have raised wages, improved benefits and enhanced protection for staffers; raised morale and improved communication among workers who sometimes felt siloed and isolated from one another; created clear lines of demarcation around who can do what kind of work; and formalized new standards around transparency and equality.”

Staffers at Quartz, Time Magazine, Fortune, and Fast Company announced drives to unionize – and that’s just a small portion of the announcements across the industry this year.

Many of the organization efforts weren’t pretty. Vox staffers staged a one-day walkout to pressure the company to sign the contract. BuzzFeed negotiations lasted months and also included a walkout. After hearing that employees of The Ringer wanted to unionize, Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, threatened to fire employees who engaged in union-organizing activity.

The trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In the fourth quarter, staff at NBC News Digital and Hearst Magazines announced their own plans to organize with goals including fair wages, diversity, and transparency.

To boost transparency and give journalists more knowledge to effectively negotiate their compensation, the “Real Media Salaries” spreadsheet was circulated in November and has exceeded 1,600 self-reported entries. (Note: Numbers in the spreadsheet are not verified.)

4. Everyone Gets a Podcast

This year, it seemed like more and more media companies decided to try their hand at podcasting in an attempt to reach followers with content and advertising, a big appeal to publishers.

The New York Times reported in March that “more than half the people in the United States have listened to one, and nearly one out of three people listen to at least one podcast every month.” The report also found that the number of listeners over age 55 and between 12-24 are growing.

NYT had an especially great year with its podcast, “The Daily.” The hit podcast reached 1 billion downloads after launching two years ago.

iHeartMedia also had a big year. The radio company expanded its popular “Stuff You Should Know” show to global audiences. Over the summer, it announced a partnership with Pride Media to create a series of LGBTQ+ podcasts that will be made available through 2020. And in September, the radio giant partnered with Glamour to launch the “She Makes Money Moves” podcast, which offers financial advice for women.

2019 also saw several publishers partnering with consumer brands or other publishers for new podcasts. Projects this year included:

  • Cosmopolitan launched “Single, Swipe, Repeat” with Tinder. The podcast covers relationships and is hosted by Cosmo’s Sex & Relationships Director, Faye Brennan.
  • Flipboard and Digital Trends launched a tech news podcast in August.
  • Univision, PopSugar, and Target teamed up for “Juntos We Shine,” a 16-episode series about community heroes.
  • The Washington Examiner launched its own daily podcast, “Examining Politics,” with Cumulus Media to cover the day’s political news.
  • ESPN Daily” debuted in October, hosted by Mina Kimes, a senior writer with ESPN.
  • The popular business news newsletter Morning Brew ventured into the podcast space with the debut of “Business Casual” in the fall.
  • Vox Media now has more than 200 podcasts, including the popular “Pivot” from Recode, which was expanded to two shows per week.

It looks like this field will only continue to grow. Forrester predicts the podcasting industry to be the next $1 billion media market by the end of 2020.

5. Exploring Future Technologies in Newsrooms

As technologies like AI, machine learning, 5G, and smart speakers advance, more and more newsrooms are experimenting with them and learning about the pros and cons of these new tools.

As staffs shrink, finding a way to utilize these technologies to save costs and time is critical.

Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning / Augmented Reality

Some publishers are using AI to write short, basic stories or newsletters, allowing journalists more time for working on in-depth, investigative stories – or for catching up on sleep. Krishna Bharat, creator of Google News, sees more applications of AI in the newsroom – “cyber reporters” that can handle interviews, organizational AI systems that can pool and organize journalists’ knowledge, and more.

In an interesting development this year, the University of Washington and Allen Institute for AI created Grover, a fake news generator. Its purpose? To learn misinformation so well that it can identify it and help prevent it.

According to CJR, machine learning can be used to help investigative journalists make sense of large datasets, but it’s still flawed by bias and uncertain results.

Augmented reality (AR) also is being tested in newsrooms. The tech is useful for bringing context to hard-to-grasp concepts (like climate change, for example). But creating this shared experience also has its limitations, including costs and deciding what topics it’s appropriate for.

Smart Speakers

Many outlets are trying to figure out how to present news via smart speakers – potentially reaching a new audience for their content. Publishers are starting to see the potential of smart speakers and voice search. As Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute of the Study of Journalism, explained in a Q&A with Reuters, “Anyone producing anything over five minutes and catching audience attention will be appealing to advertisers, particularly if there’s data that shows who those people are and that they’re loyal users.”

More work is needed to find and address any concerns with these technologies. According to the Journalism AI report from Polis and the Google News Initiative, “With these new powers come responsibilities to maintain quality, increase editorial diversity and promote transparency of the systems they create.”

Looking to 2020

What can we expect in 2020?

Only time will tell, of course, but it’s unfortunately reasonable to expect more layoffs as the new Gannett continues its staff cuts. We hope to see more unique journalism ventures take off and offer new opportunities for journalists.

With the ongoing impeachment inquiry and the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, reporters will be working hard to educate their readers on the big issues and build trust among the public. We’re sure to see some amazing investigative journalism and pieces that utilize multimedia and graphics in unique ways. As always, but especially during this period, identifying and preventing dis/misinformation will continue to be a goal of publishers across the industry.

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Rocky Parker works in Audience Relations at PR Newswire. Check out her previous posts for Beyond Bylines and connect on LinkedIn. When she’s not working, Rocky typically can be found cooking, binge watching a new show, or playing with her puppy, Hudson.

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