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How best to move forward after newsroom layoffs

The New York Times in December. USA Today in September. Newsroom layoffs, buyouts, and other forms of staff reduction have a near-drumbeat quality.

Responding to layoffs can be difficult both for management and staff, depressing morale and increasing feelings of insecurity. At the precise moment when a news organization most needs its staff to be innovative and hard-working, layoffs can have the opposite effect.

Moving forward productively after a round of layoffs can speed up recovery and avoid or delay future layoffs.

In an in-depth analysis of how employees in one newsroom responded to staffing upheavals, University of Iowa Professor Brian Ekdale and his colleagues uncover successful — and unsuccessful — coping strategies. Some workers, they explain in their recently published article, respond to layoffs by thinking proactively about how to move the organization forward. Others take a more destructive route, questioning the organization and their place in it.

To do their analysis, Ekdale and his collaborators studied the newsroom of a 50,000-circulation daily newspaper and a leading local television news outlet that had been through two rounds of layoffs in 2009 and 2013. The scholars conducted in-depth interviews with 20 newsroom staff and surveyed nearly 50 newsroom employees over seven months.

After going through staff reduction, newsroom managers should focus their attention on the staff who remain.

The researchers applied a framework developed by management professors Aneil Mishra and Gretchen Spreitzer. Mishra and Spreitzer identified four ways in which workers typically respond to downsizing: by feeling hopeful, obliging, fearful, or cynical.

After completing their work, Ekdale and his colleagues recognized precisely the same pattern.

Within the newsroom, they found:

  • Hopeful workers who eagerly embraced new ideas and saw themselves as integral to helping the news organization rebound.
  • Obliging workers who saw a stressful and strained newsroom and looked for ways to continue their work apace, avoiding any risk from rocking the boat through attempts at innovation.
  • Fearful workers who, afraid of losing their jobs, were at a loss about what to do to.
  • Cynical workers who, certain of their impending job losses, openly critiqued the news organization.

As desirable as hopeful workers are, laying off all non-hopeful workers is the wrong approach, warn Ekdale and his collaborators, Iowa professor Melissa Tully, graduate student Shawn Harmsen, and City University London’s professor Jane Singer. This strategy, they caution, could backfire and lead hopeful workers to become obliging, fearful, or, worse yet, cynical.

Rather, organizations should address the concerns of non-hopeful workers and cultivate a climate that can sustain layoffs.

Mishra and Spreitzer identify several factors that produce a better post-layoff climate:

  • Trust in top management
  • Perception that downsizing is done fairly, justly, and with sympathy toward those let go
  • Sense of control over one’s work and a belief that the work has meaning
  • Belief that downsizing could make the remaining jobs more rewarding, manageable

This research suggests that after going through staff reduction, newsroom managers should focus their attention on the staff who remain.

Wise steps could include: developing a multidimensional strategy for how to handle the four different types of reactions; preserving trust by outlining a credible plan for moving forward to a better future (not “do more with less”); emphasizing the importance of a newsroom’s mission; and being transparent and empathetic about the layoff process.

Ekdale and his colleagues note that their results are based on a case-study of one newsroom with volunteer participants. It’s not possible to know whether the trends they find apply in all other contexts. What is noteworthy about the study is how closely the newsroom staff interviewed by Ekdale and his team follow the patterns predicted by Mishra and Spreitzer.

There are, it seems, common responses and strategies for coping with layoffs.

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to evaluate approaches to dealing with layoffs. Among the possibilities:

  • Identify what creates trust in top management.
  • Test different messaging strategies for communicating with employees about layoffs.
  • Evaluate how to best alleviate concerns and motivate obliging, fearful, and cynical
  • Conduct a survey across newsrooms to identify which organizations have the most hopeful workers and examine what factors may have led to that.

Citations

Brian Ekdale, Melissa Tully, Shawn Harmsen, and Jane B. Singer. (2014). Newswork within a culture of job insecurity: Producing news amidst organizational and industry uncertainty. Journalism Practice. doi: 10.1080/17512786.2014.963376

Aneil K. Mishra and Gretchen M. Spreitzer. (1998). Explaining how survivors respond to downsizing: The roles of trust, empowerment, justice, and work redesign. The Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 567-588. doi: 10.5465/AMR.1998.926627

Research Review is a monthly series highlighting useful news-related findings from scholarly research papers. It is written by Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. We hope this series will bring new insights to working journalists, as well as spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.

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