Ryan Kelly won a Pulitzer Prize this week for his photo of a car plowing into protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – an image he snapped on the final day of his newspaper job before leaving to work at a brewery.
The photographer has joined a growing list of journalists who have won the profession’s highest honor on their way out the door of a once-thriving newspaper industry now destabilized and seriously weakened by the internet.
Kelly, 31, said he was burned out and looking for a better quality of life.
“Bad hours, bad pay, high stress, low job security … it all just sort of built to me being ready to move on,” said Kelly, who now works as digital and social media coordinator at Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond.
Like Kelly, other Pulitzer winners said deteriorating conditions in the industry drove them out.
Digital titans Facebook and Google have captured the majority of advertising that once supported local journalism, Craigslist has wreaked havoc on classifieds and free news outlets have proliferated online. Circulation has declined, and newspapers have slashed jobs and reduced benefits.
Rob Kuznia, a reporter for the Daily Breeze of Torrance, California, made headlines in 2015 for having left the paper by the time he won a Pulitzer for an investigation into widespread corruption in a school district.
Since then, the reporter who won with him, Rebecca Kimitch, also has departed for a public relations job.
“I was done. I just didn’t have the fight in me anymore,” said Kimitch, who had been a journalist for about 15 years.
Working at a local newspaper meant being asked to do more with less, she said.
But it also meant having less support, as the number of editors and copy editors – who examine stories closely for style, grammar, clarity and fairness – have diminished. She said she found herself constantly wracked with anxiety about possible errors in her stories.
“You’re just on your own. That level of stress is really overwhelming, and it just takes a toll,” she said.
According to an analysis from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in the newspaper publishing industry fell almost 60 percent between June 1990 and March 2016.
At the same time, the number of people employed in internet publishing and broadcasting rose from about 30,000 to nearly 198,000.
Laurie Garrett, a former Newsday reporter who won a Pulitzer for her reporting from what was then Zaire on an Ebola outbreak and has been honored with other top industry awards, echoed Kimitch’s concerns about the dwindling ranks in newsrooms.
“What we’ve lost through years and years of budget cuts and corporate takeovers and stock market dividend-seeking and so on by the news industry … we’ve lost that bench,” she said.
Garrett said that when journalism was at its peak – in the 1980s and ’90s, she thinks – the industry was able to hold leaders accountable. Now, some of that has fallen to activist groups like Black Lives Matter or other citizen organizations, and the media has missed important stories, she said.
“You hear the outcry all the time: Where’s the media and why weren’t they there?” she said.
Among the corporate takeovers in the past 10 years was the buyout of MediaNews Group, one of the country’s largest newspaper chains that included the flagship Denver Post. A New York hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, acquired the company now operating as Digital First Media, and critics say it has gutted newsrooms while draining off profits.
The Post ran an editorial earlier this month criticizing its owner, saying, “When newsroom owners view profits as the only goal, quality, reliability and accountability suffer.”
Digital First Media also owns the Daily Breeze, where Kimitch and Kuznia worked.
Rob Byers, who worked for decades for what’s now the Charleston Gazette-Mail including as its executive editor before being essentially laid off by new owners in March, said readership has a crucial role in keeping newspapers afloat.
“They need to be willing to pay for news,” said Byers, who helped oversee reporter Eric Eyre’s work on the flood of opioids pouring into West Virginia that won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
Newspapers like the Gazette-Mail play a crucial role in uncovering fraud and abuse in government and industry, he said.
“I think people underestimate how important (journalism) is to the country and kind of the way of life we have here,” he said.