Journalist Furloughed the Same Week He Won a Pulitzer Prize Award

In today’s reality for newspapers nationwide, award winning journalism simply does not result in the kind of revenue that sustains news outlets. In a tragic example of this phenomenon, Joe Sonka of the Louisville Courier-Journal won a Pulitzer Prize and will be on unpaid furlough next week. The ongoing coronavirus crisis has exacerbated this problem, but the underlying reason for this is that Google and Facebook have destroyed the business model for the journalism industry by siphoning off billions in ad revenue that used to go to news outlets. 

“I won a Pulitzer Prize today, and I’m on my second week of unpaid furlough starting next Monday. Please subscribe to the @courierjournal to support our work,” tweeted Sonka on May 4th. 

What’s happening at the Courier-Journal is not unique and not only because of the pandemic. Similar things have been happening for almost a decade because Google and Facebook exploit the digital ad marketplace. It happened to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, when it laid off 70 employees after winning a Pulitzer for breaking the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal, and at the Salt Lake Tribune, and the Tampa Bay Times, and on and on.

The Courier-Journal, owned by Gannett, which has continued to prioritize cost savings not journalism — most recently affecting journalists at 566 newspapers across the country. One Gannett shareholder has announced that he will vote against management at its upcoming Annual General Meeting. Hopefully more action like this will force Gannett to prioritize award winning journalism, like Joe Sonka’s, over profits.

The following is a statement from John Stanton, former DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed and co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, regarding Sonka’s experience: 

It is incredibly heartbreaking that even award winning journalism is not enough to sustain local news outlets because the digital robber barons and hedge fund billionaires are siphoning off their revenues. Local reporters like Joe Sonka, who are recognized for their public service in holding our leaders accountable, are essential to America’s democracy. The COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted how important it is to protect these newsrooms. But big Tech companies and Wall Street hedge funds have decimated the journalism industry. We need to do more to save journalism.