The percentage of large newspapers and digital news sites that experienced layoffs fell considerably in 2021 when compared with the year prior, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis, which examined online news stories about layoffs at outlets in both of these categories.

How we did this

This Pew Research Center analysis tallied layoffs at daily newspapers with average Sunday circulations of at least 50,000 in the third quarter of 2021, as measured by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), as well as The Wall Street Journal, which does not report Sunday circulation to AAM. In total, there were 73 newspapers that met these criteria. Layoffs were also tallied for the 34 digital-native news outlets with monthly averages of at least 10 million unique visitors in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to Comscore data; these outlets also had to meet additional criteria for inclusion.

The list of newspapers for 2019 and 2020 included 86 newspapers and 45 digital-native news outlets based on circulation and traffic figures from the fourth quarter of 2019. For 2018, the analysis included 97 newspapers and 37 digital-native news outlets. For 2017, it included 110 newspapers and 35 digital-native news outlets. The news articles examined did not always mention the kinds of positions eliminated, so the layoffs analyzed here were not necessarily just of newsroom employees. It is possible that more layoffs occurred but did not receive media coverage, and thus remained under the radar of the search methods employed in this analysis.

This is the latest report in Pew Research Center’s ongoing investigation of the state of news, information and journalism in the digital age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Note: Read the full methodology (PDF).

A line graph showing that fewer newspapers and digital outlets had layoffs in 2021 than in 2020

In 2021, 11% of high-circulation newspapers – those with an average Sunday circulation of 50,000 or more – experienced layoffs, compared with three times that share the year before (33%), when the coronavirus pandemic upended the nation’s economy. The 2021 figure is the lowest percentage of large newspapers experiencing layoffs since the Center began tracking this trend in 2017.

Similarly, only 3% of high-traffic digital-native news outlets – those with a monthly average of at least 10 million unique visitors – had layoffs in 2021, also marking the lowest figure since 2017.

Unlike in previous years, major newspapers did not experience multiple rounds of publicly reported layoffs in 2021. In 2020, for example, 11% of the high-circulation newspapers that experienced layoffs had more than one round of announced layoffs. 

One possible explanation for the decline in layoffs at large newspapers and digital news sites is the growth of the U.S. economy in 2021, which rebounded from the pandemic-induced stresses of 2020. Indeed, the U.S. added a record number of jobs in 2021. Widespread staff cuts in 2020 also may have left some newsrooms with less room to cut in 2021.

The decline in circulation at U.S. newspapers also may play a role in the decrease in publicly reported layoffs at newspapers in 2021. The number of daily newspapers with an average Sunday circulation of 50,000 or more – the threshold for inclusion in this analysis – declined from 110 in 2017 to 73 in 2021. Though the layoffs reported here are measured as a percentage of the newspapers in the sample, the newspapers included in this analysis could have greater economic health and stability than the group from 2017.  

Other sources that track media layoffs have also found a decline from 2020 to 2021. And some major layoffs in the broader media industry occurred at organizations outside of the scope of this analysis. For example, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the owner of nearly 200 television stations across the U.S., laid off more than 400 people in March 2021.

It’s possible that the downturn in staff cuts at newspapers will be unique to 2021, however. In August of this year, Gannett, a chain with over 200 papers, laid off 3% of its U.S. workforce, or about 400 employees, impacting at least 70 different newsrooms.

Note: Read the full methodology (PDF).

Elisa Shearer  is a senior researcher focusing on news and information research at Pew Research Center.
Emily Tomasik  is a research assistant focusing on news and information research at Pew Research Center.