A third of large-circulation U.S. newspapers laid off staff last year, according to a new Pew Research Center study released Friday.
The number is larger than in 2019, the study found, when approximately one-quarter of papers in the same circulation range cut jobs.
Pew examined staff cuts at 86 newspapers that had an average Sunday circulation of at least 50,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019, as well as The Wall Street Journal and 45 digital-native news outlets that had a monthly average of at least 10 million unique visitors in the same time frame.
COVID-19 played a role in the cuts made in 2020. However, larger newspapers cut more staff than smaller publications.
In 2019, layoffs were spread out across papers that varied in size. But last year, the study found, more than half the cuts came from larger newspapers, those with 250,000-plus Sunday circulation.
Pandemic federal government relief packages may have caused the disparity, Pew theorized.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, many small and medium-sized newspaper companies were able to apply for federal aid through the CARES Act, a federal coronavirus aid package designed to help small businesses pay employees and other expenses,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, due to rules surrounding this loan program, many local newspapers owned by larger companies such as Gannett or McClatchy were not eligible to apply.”
In addition, Pew found that 1 in 10 newspapers experienced multiple rounds of layoffs last year, and almost half of papers that cut staff in 2020 also cut staff in 2019.
The recent Pew study further documents the ongoing decline in local journalism that has accelerated recently.
In a study last year Pew discovered that U.S. newspapers have lost half their newsroom staff since 2008.
A 2020 report from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina found that since 2004, the U.S. lost 2,100 publications, one-fourth of its newspapers including 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or nondailies.
In addition to creating a dearth of local news coverage, research from MIT suggests that the death of local newspapers is helping to polarize the U.S. electorate.
A recent study from researchers at MIT, Yale and French university Sciences Po found voters less likely to split tickets in elections as newspapers produce less local content.
And an increase in straight ticket voting, in turn, translates into more polarized voters, said Charles Angelucci, one of the study's authors.
“These days, it is very likely that if two persons disagree about their preferred presidential candidate they also disagree about their preferred local politician. More straight ticket voting is yet another manifestation of greater polarization,” Angelucci added.
—Updated at 4:06 p.m.