Thirty-two reporters and photographers have died in the line of duty while working for my former employer, The Associated Press. The first was Mark Kellogg ,who died while covering Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bigfork on June 25, 1876. The most recent was photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was shot to death April 4, 2014, by an Afghan policeman, who also shot and wounded AP correspondent Kathy Gannon.

Niedringhaus’ death and Gannon’s wounding should make us pause and honor all journalists for their dedication and sacrifices. Thankfully, few journalists pay the ultimate price, but few could challenge the notion that the last decade has been bitter for reporters, editors and photographers, many of whom are now “former” journalists.

The American Society of News Editors estimates that the number of newsroom employees fell from over 56,000 in 1999, to about 38,000 in 2012, ASNE’s last census. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number will be even lower when the 2013 survey is posted later this summer, and lower again when the 2014 census is compiled next year.

Reporters, photographers and editors have lost jobs by the thousands as media companies — especially newspapers — cut expenses by as much as 40 percent. Newspapers, wire services, network television, local TV and radio stations have all cut journalists — blame the Great Recession, changing technological times and reader behavior.

Shrinking head counts, experience

In addition to total newsroom head counts declining, senior journalists have been replaced by lower-paid, less experienced staff members. And traditional journalism is not a field that many of the best and brightest college graduates are pursuing.

The news services that support newspapers and broadcast stations have also shrunk. The AP has fewer reporters, bureaus and correspondents. The once-great Washington Post-LA Times News Service was dissolved in 2009. And UPI is little more than an asterisk in journalism history books.

The vast stringer networks that AP once nourished have diminished and UPI’s once-extensive stringer network is long gone. Therefore, a lot of routine news that once got distributed goes unreported. Some might argue that news is now crowd-sourced through Twitter, Facebook or blogs, but I remain unconvinced.

Now, every time there’s a major news event someplace in this country, I wonder if the local newspaper (or TV or radio station) has a journalist capable of handling the story. What happens when that unexpected major story breaks? Who is there to chronicle the story when there’s a school or mall shooting, a tornado, earthquake, a downed airliner, a major fire, a 100-year flood, a public official gunned down, a major trial, etc.?

Young general assignment reporters can handle rewriting press releases, typing up obits, covering a news conference, or staffing a routine government meeting. But can they step up to the plate when that really major breaking news story occurs? Will they stand toe-to-toe with a public official who is trying to block access to information?

Publishers and newspaper owners might get away for awhile with smaller products and less reporting and editing — so long as most of the content is routine. But when the story of the century or decade — or just the story of the year — comes along, will publishers have journalists capable of handling the story at the level that will keep readers and advertisers locked in to the product?

Publishers, look around your newsroom. Who would you trust to handle a truly monumental story? If the police scanner reports a shooter at one of your area schools or malls, who will you send to cover the story?

Beyond major breaking news, can we expect fewer and less experienced journalists to write excellent feature stories, or pen insightful editorials or analysis, or stop time with a great photograph? Do we want all of our photos to come from amateurs using smartphones?

If you don’t know the answers, I’d suggest that not only are journalists on the endangered species list, but your publication may be, too. Your newspaper(s) could be losing the respect of your community — not a circumstance that is good for either business or journalism.

Michael Kinsley in Vanity Fair recently said, “Most newspapers aren’t very good and wouldn’t be missed by anybody who could get The New York Times or USA Today and some bloggy source of local news.”

I disagree, because The New York Times, USA Today and most bloggers won’t be able to give top-notch coverage to the next major story that breaks more than 100 miles from New York or Washington. p

Marc Wilson is CEO of TownNews.com. He can be reached at marcus@townnews.com.

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