Fresh from the morgue: 2 out of 3 news librarians fired

news libraryNewspaper morgues used to be the repositories of  each publication’s institutional history as well as the librarians who painstakingly clipped and indexed stories for posterity. Today? The libraries of most large newspapers and many magazines have been slashed by half or more and, in many cases, shuttered entirely. Yet hundreds of librarians have managed to adapt—focusing on computer-assisted reporting, data retrieval and the like and a few libraries-within-newsrooms are even thriving. Some are even looking to their morgues to produce revenue by licensing or syndicating the newspaper’s archived content or doing custom research.

First, kill all the librarians

A database maintained (and available publicly) by Michelle Quigley, a news researcher at The Palm Beach Post, shows the extent to which this small but essential corner of the newsroom has been decimated by cuts. According to Quigley’s numbers, which cover 81 daily newspapers (and a few magazines),  two out of three news librarians have lost their jobs since 2006. That’s 303 layoffs leaving just 167 positions behind. While the (slightly outdated) list covers only a fraction of the newspaper industry’s 1,500 dailies, not to mention the thousands community weeklies, it includes the largest and most prominent newsrooms in the U.S. and points up how publications such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Businessweek and ABC News have cut their research headcount to zero. (Largest remaining library staff? Newsday, with 11, which is 10 more than the Wall Street Journal.)

It may seem obvious with hindsight that news libraries would suffer, but nowhere else in the newsroom was the advent of the internet cheered more loudly, says Mike Meiners, who recently left his post as director of news administration at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after a 25-year career in news libraries. “Librarians led the pack” when the internet emerged as a research and communications tool in the nineties, notes Meiner. “The web exploded and public records became available en masse, and it really made our role [essential] in helping reporters find news tips and information.” He calls the late nineties and early aughts a “golden age” for news morgues.

“They really don’t need you anymore”

The internet produced two phenomena that rendered library staffs vulnerable, says James Matarazzo, a Special Libraries Association fellow who’s studied and written about corporate libraries, including those at media companies. First came the availability of software to do what news librarians used to spend a lot of their time on: archiving and indexing the publication’s own content, both for inclusion in public databases and for internal research whenever a reporter needed background for a story.  “If all you did was prepare the paper for the database aggregator and index the newspaper, they really don’t need you anymore,” says Matarazzo. Second came the general  collapse of advertising revenue and with it the funds to do the investigative reporting that relies heavily on research.

But just as newsroom training is evolving to cope with shrinking budgets and new priorities, so the advent of digital archives have altered, but not eliminated, the role of newspaper libraries and the people who continue to staff them. The Times-Picayune (which recently cut back to printing three days a week) reconsidered its decision to eliminate its entire library staff (they still fired two three-decade veterans). Tech and data-savvy librarians and research professionals at several publications have found new ways to contribute and stay relevant. Meiner said the St. Louis staff has shrunk since then but those with computer-assisted reporting skills remain a valuable part of the newsroom (Quigley’s list says the staff went from 10 to 1).

Computer-assisted reporting and data journalism is also part of the job for Leigh Montgomery, who started as a librarian at The Christian Science Monitor in 1998. The Monitor retains a collection of reference books but most reporters now use computer-based resources instead. Montgomery sits right in the newsroom so she can “actively hear and collaborate on what we’re working on.”

“We’re getting information from databases, coaching people on how to use those, how to find the best and most relevant information,” she says. “We might be updating a story several times throughout the day, putting together a story or data presentation. There’s definitely a role for an information professional in that.”

Shhh! I’m making you money

Teresa Leonard began as a research librarian in 1987 and now works as director of news research at The News & Observer in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Her staff of four sits in the newsroom alongside other departments. Like her counterpart at the CS Monitor, Leonard and her staff help with research requests. “A lot of our research is public records-based so as public records have been opened up online, they’re more accessible,” she explains. Leonard is also involved in training initiatives such as writing workshops and public records workshops.

Despite digital technologies for archiving the paper, Leonard doesn’t see the archivist’s role disappearing entirely. “The electronic production of the paper doesn’t always produce as clean archives,” she says. “Where papers have someone who can pay attention to that and oversee that, then you’ve got a much more usable archive.”

In addition to their roles as archivists, trainers and data experts, librarians sometimes also help newspapers make money. Toby Pearlstein, also a Special Libraries Association fellow who collaborates with Matarazzo, sees librarians bringing in cash by selling images from photo archives or doing research for the public. “They’re striving to find new sources of revenue for the paper that the paper might not be familiar with,” she adds.

For her part, Montgomery says she’s helping the Monitor by “looking at new models and being fully aware of trends in the information industry and of content opportunities. Many librarians have been involved in doing research for scholars or the public, fulfilling photo requests and looking at new information products.”

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.