For journalists, bars have long functioned as second newsrooms. Over martinis, sources share secrets. Over beers, ordinary men and women plead for coverage of some local outrage. And when the news business has convulsed, eliminating afternoon editions or shuttering foreign bureaus, reporters have knocked back a scotch or two, shaken their fists at management and vowed to soldier on.
That was the mood in Washington on Friday evening at the National Press Club, which invited any journalists who had recently been laid off for free tacos and drinks. Though hundreds of reporters and editors have lost their jobs across the country since the start of the year (one editor said he feared that an “extinction-level event” loomed over the industry), newsrooms in the nation’s capitol appeared to suffer inordinately, with a relentless procession of bad news throughout the fall and winter.
In November, Bloomberg shed more than a dozen jobs. The next month, The Washington Post eliminated about 240 positions through buyouts. In late January, The Los Angeles Times cut its D.C. bureau to the bone; a week later, The Wall Street Journal decided to jettison roughly 20 staffers in Washington. And then there was The Messenger, a lavishly-funded online news outlet with offices in Washington that flamed out after less than a year of operation.
“We had a conversation a few months prior that we felt pretty stable in our jobs,” said Sam Murray, 25, formerly a data journalist for Bloomberg. “One morning it all ended. Very unexpected.”
So, to the bar, for camaraderie and condolence.
“I know this isn’t the solution,” Emily Wilkins, 33, the National Press Club’s new president, said of the taco night. “But you can’t just do nothing.”
Her call was avidly heeded. At the club’s 14th-floor Reliable Source bar and grill, dozens of journalists young and old scooped up vaguely Mexican fare from metal trays and bellied up to a handsome wooden bar whose offerings included a proprietary pilsner, First Draft, created for the club by the Denizens Brewery Co. in Maryland.
The attire was, appropriately enough, more newsroom than boardroom: sober button-downs, sensible blouses. Business cards flashed. Glasses clinked. Tortilla chips crunched. Ground beef glistened.
“I’ve never seen anything like this since the pandemic,” said Ian Kullgren, a Bloomberg labor reporter who showed up to buy drinks for two laid-off former colleagues. He said he was accustomed to seeing as few as five people at the Reliable Source on a Friday evening. “It did take people getting laid off, but journalists are very good at showing up for each other.”
Social life in Washington has struggled to recover its prepandemic sizzle, as many professionals continue to work from home. Friday’s event felt like a welcome, if brief, return to an in-person community, some said.
“I’ve only been in the D.C. area for two years,” said Elizabeth Moseley, 26, who recently lost her job as an audience producer with Bethesda Magazine, which covers a wealthy Beltway suburb home to politicians and power brokers. The layoff was her second in the media. “I’m really not trying to leave,” said Ms. Moseley, who is from Alabama. “It’s good to know that I am not alone.”
That wasn’t an issue on Friday, as the Reliable Source remained crowded and convivial throughout the evening.
Mark Pattison, 67, spent 33 years at the Catholic News Service, which shuttered its domestic bureaus in late 2022. His generous severance finally ran out, so he came “to commiserate” and exchange business cards. His own card listed a dizzying number of interests and occupations — singer, labor activist, baseball researcher — but journalism still beckoned, despite the turbulence of the industry.
“I get a feeling that one day all of us who have been laid off will wake up and realize we’ve had a collective case of PTSD,” Mr. Pattison later added in an email.
“This is the best place to be in a bad situation,” said Cecily Scott Martin, the club’s membership coordinator, as she handed out tickets for free drinks. The club has a history of standing up for journalists, she noted. In recent years, the members-only organization, founded in 1908, has called for the freeing of Austin Tice, the freelance journalist who the United States believes is being held in Syria, and for The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who sits in a Moscow prison.
At home, meanwhile, news outlets have been hunting for increasingly scarce advertising revenue or the uncertain largess of billionaire benefactors.
The club’s Truman Room — where Harry S. Truman, then the vice president, once played the piano as the actress Lauren Bacall perched atop the instrument, a scene captured in a famous photograph — was given over to former employees of The Messenger, whose dramatic implosion cost about 300 journalists their jobs.
“I am one of the chattel destroyed by The Messenger,” said Warren Rojas, 48, a former political reporter, who found himself at a table with Ms. Moseley, the engagement editor. The Messenger’s founder, Jimmy Finkelstein, burned through $50 million in a mere eight months. “How do you do that?” Mr. Rojas wondered.
He had endured the industry’s so-called pivot to video and the emphasis on Google-friendly headlines. “It’s not my first rodeo,” he added. He was less worried for himself, he said, than for younger colleagues who may have trouble pointing prospective employers to their recent articles, since The Messenger’s website had been wiped clean.
Overhearing Mr. Rojas and Ms. Moseley, Thomas Brennan approached and asked if he could join them at their table. Mr. Brennan, 38, is the executive director of The War Horse, a site that covers the military and that he has kept running since 2016 using a nonprofit model pioneered by outlets like Mother Jones. He came to taco night in search of editors and reporters to add to his small newsroom, he said.
Leaning against the bar, Jason Dick, the editor in chief of Roll Call, the venerable outlet covering Capitol Hill, said that although he had survived decades in journalism without being laid off, he was sensitive to the pains brought on by media turmoil.
“It does absolutely suck right now,” Mr. Dick, 52, says he tells younger journalists. “And there’s nothing that can change that. But it won’t necessarily always suck.”