Why the worst may not be behind us

The cuts of the last three years, plus generally improving economic news, have led some to believe that the worst is behind print newsrooms.

Consider this a wake-up call. The worst is not behind us. Not unless we proactively chart a new course.

Print circulation continues to decline, advertising tends to follow suit and there’s no convincing evidence that online dollars are flowing in fast enough to fill the void.

If you don’t believe this, consider yesterday’s news:

  • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch lays off six, including four copy editors, a manager and a photographer.
  • Gannett announces that janitorial services at several properties will be outsourced to ABM, a facilities management group.
  • AOL’s online Patch operation lays off 20 by consolidating regions.

If that wasn’t enough, check out this morning’s story on Poynter.org that highlights the drastic changes in copy flow under way at the Bay Area News Group (which includes the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News) and the Denver Post.

If you’re still unmoved, look at the first quarter earnings for major media companies announced in the past month. Generally speaking, the newspaper divisions all are losing money.

I recently mused to a high-ranking media executive outside my company that I wondered where it was all going.

The response was brutally and beautifully blunt.

We know where it’s going. I just don’t know what anybody can do about it.

Even those companies that have been hiring (MLive in Michigan, for instance) appear to have created openings by shedding legacy print jobs (in Grand Rapids, for example) and coming at things from an online perspective.

They’re the new competitors, and they do so with fewer costs. If today’s Patch announcement is revelatory at all, it’s an indication that even they still hadn’t streamlined enough.

This isn’t to say all is lost. It is to say that tough decisions remain.

Many large Metro newspapers continue to serve two or more masters — time- and cost-intensive print products that bring in a large but shrinking share of the income and less costly but lower-revenue online operations.

What to do?

Clearly, we need to reduce redundancies. Newspaper newsrooms are competing with online-mostly operations like MLive (in Michigan), Patch or Huffington Post or a hundred local blogs, none of which go through the laborious processes that print products do. We need to streamline the often repetitive methods that helped us soar in a previous era but which weigh us down today.

We need to maintain the quality and credibility standards that have made our brands stand apart.

We need to increase the amount of unique content that makes us relevant. We need to seek out the hard and important things that we can do and no one else can replicate.

We need to work harder. All of us. We can’t afford down time. We need to work every minute as though our jobs depended on it.

We need to cut to the core and prepare to cut more.

We can’t be coddled into thinking that the building isn’t burning just because nobody on our floor is yelling “fire!”

Ask the janitors.

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3 comments

  1. It’s been a humbling week for sure, Gary. It’s hard to argue with anything after the “what to do” paragraph that you wrote.

  2. Yes, of course — but . . .

    Yes, legacy journalism has a “need to streamline the often repetitive methods” and a “need to work harder.”

    But reading about an inability to “afford down time” and a “need to work every minute as though our jobs depended on it” makes me.hope that time for reflection, analysis, interpretation, fact-digesting and pattern-searching doesn’t get streamlined imprudently as tough decisions are made. Quality and credibility standards weren’t achieved solely from hands-on-keypad intensity, after all.

    In a Columbia Journalism Review critique of “what I will call the-future-of-news consesnus,” Dean Starkman writes about “journalism’s law of physics: to do their jobs properly, reporters need time and need to think.”

    He voices concern — alarm, actually — “that “journalism is now enslaved to a new system of production . . . [as] that which is possible has quickly become imperative.” He feels it will “undermione reporters in their work . . . [by requiring] that they keep in touch with you vis Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.”

    “This new enslavement,” Starkman writes, “hurts readers far more than it does the reporters who must do the blogging, tweeting, podcasting, commenting and word-cloud formationm until all hours of the day and night. . . . Journalism is great these days at incremental news, not so good at stepping back and grabbing hold of the narrative.”

    Too sweeping, too broadly brushed, perhaps. But competing with Patch, MLive, HuffPo and 100 lucal blogs means it’s vital for evolving newspapers to ” seek out the hard and important things that we can do and no one else can replicate,” as you note.

    Good luck with those tough decisions. How they’re made affects us all.

    [ CJR essay: http://bit.ly/vAgsDv ]

    .

    1. Great points and a great reminder about Starkman’s essay. You prompted me to re-read it. I agree with much of it.

      I must say that even in the current competitive environment, most newspaper newsrooms still spend a fair amount of time pondering. I fear we’ll ponder ourselves out of the market.

      It’s the job of editors to make sure that there’s an appropriate balance of in-depth enterprise and breaking news coverage in a given newsroom. And no matter the size of the newsroom there’s time for both. Among the keys to success, it seems to me, are to:
      – Avoid getting sucked into time-consuming coverage of routine events that are unlikely to generate any news of interest
      – Make sure any enterprise you do is on high-interest topics and is virtually guaranteed to compel readership (otherwise, why bother?)
      – Aim high with some major efforts every year that remind everyone of how critical you are to the community.

      Twitter, Facebook and the like are tools to collect and disseminate news and communicate with each other and should be used accordingly. Still, too many people see them as optional and unimportant. In the developing age, having a personal/professional audience is more important than ever.

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