More Americans are coal miners than local journalists

It helps to understand economic change by comparing stories.

Naturally the visualization of the soot-covered coal miner is an evocative image of blue collar industry. Almost immediately as that image became a tool during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, it became a political football.

To put the size of the coal industry in context, we were reminded that the middling fast food chain Arbys employed more people than the entirety of the coal industry. More journalists have lost their jobs than coal miners. To understand job losses in news-gathering, researchers asked, are journalists today’s coal miners?

Like journalism, coal mining involves many layers of employees. Do you count the coal-mining company CEO as a coal miner? Do you count the CEO of the newspaper company as a journalist?

To this end, the Washington Post reported that in May 2015, just 15,900 Americans were employed as coal extractors, the specific job you’re likely thinking of when you think coal miner. (Review the 2018 numbers in greater detail, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Journalism is similarly hampered by many layers of job types. Newspapers (the most influential but not only media organizations employing journalists) employed more than 400,000 people in 2000, according to the Boston Globe, a number that has fallen by two-thirds. One thousand professional journalist jobs are disappeared each month.

Fortunately the Bureau of Labor Statistics is less medium specific. By their count in May 2018, there were 37,140 full-time “reporters and correspondents,” across all organizations.

Critically one of the most dramatic shifts to news-gathering following the rise of the web is the divide between local and non-geographically-tied news organization. The web rewards scale. Being territorially bound does not.

The result, as Politico so dutifully reported in 2017, is a remarkable change from the past: the majority of working journalists now report without a geographic distinction. If you’re a journalist, you’re more likely to report for an industry-wide business publication or a global culture site than a city’s metro daily newspaper. That means most of those 37,140 working journalists (a number that has only shrunk since last year) are not local reporters.

Though I couldn’t find a precise number of local journalists (because local is itself a messy word), if as many as 40 percent of working journalists were local (which by all accounts sounds rather generous), we’d have 14,856 local journalists in the United States.

No doubt this is crude math. That is, after all, why I began this post noting that we’re telling economic stories. Coal miners and journalists are not neatly packaged jobs. Neither are their organizations.

But as a rough approximation, the United States has some 16,000 coal miners and some 15,000 local journalists. Rare indeed.

(Photo of coal by Bence Balla-Schottner via Unsplash)