Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why publicize newspaper job cuts?

A hundred chairs plastered with pink slips were set up in front of the Baltimore Sun today as the centerpiece of a protest against the latest staff cuts at the paper. It was a clever bit of street theater. But was it a good idea?

I am as angry as anyone about what is happening at the Tribune Co. (and elsewhere) and I am as sympathetic as can be toward the people who are losing their jobs. But I don't see the point of going to these lengths to publicize the job cuts.


All the demonstration did was call further attention to the unfortunate decline of the newspaper, which may cause readers to unsubscribe and advertisers to unadvertise – perhaps hastening the day there will be more layoffs. So, how is this a good idea?

I put the question to Bill Atkinson, a former Sun columnist who became a public relations consultant and now is acting as the unpaid spokesman for the paper’s Guild members. Here is his response:

You know better than I do that the transformation in the newspaper industry is bigger than any single protest. Show me where keeping your mouth shut in this business has generated more ad revenue or resulted in circulation gains.

So, why not protest 100 job cuts at the Baltimore Sun? Reporters, editors, columnists, copy editors, photographers love the paper and take pride in putting out an exceptional product, but they are tired of the cuts, they are tired of being told to “do more with less,” they are tired of the uncertainty. Why not tell the public that the newspaper might be better off in local hands? Why not wave signs that read, “Sun Burned” or “Sun Lite”?

Will the protest drive circulation down at The Sun? It might. Will some advertisers pick up and leave? Possibly. But management has driven away more advertisers and turned off more readers over the years because of its inability to understand the power of the Internet and react to it.

For years, we have watched management struggle to figure out how to reach readers and service advertisers. For years we've watched them ignore their clunky websites because they were too busy dreaming up products that ultimately flopped. Today, the employees are the ones paying the price.

So why not protest?

It's no secret that The Sun is struggling. Anybody who subscribes knows that just by holding the paper in his hands. What’s more, newspapers across the country, including The Sun, carry stories about plunging circulation and advertising revenue that readers actually read. For that matter, your blog seems much louder than a group of protesting journalists. It contains plenty of eye-popping headlines like:

:: How close to default is your newspaper?
:: S.J. Merc staff gutted by 62.5 percent
:: Deeper staff cuts likely at newspapers

Could this drumbeat of negative headlines and stories be responsible for driving down newspaper circulation and stock prices? Can we blame these stories for priming the pump for the next round of layoffs?

In a month's time, when readers open The Sun and no longer see the faces of the columnists they once loved to read, then you will see real declines in circulation and advertising.

So, why not protest? Why not vent? Maybe somebody will listen and The Sun will be placed in better hands.

29 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it ironic to hear complaints from a former reporter about the effects of headlines on a business. But putting that aside, here is a dirty secret of the newspaper business:
Look at productivity statistics and you will find that the newspaper industry is among the most privileged and cushioned of any in American industry.
Newspaper employees bring in an average of about $138,000 per head in annual revenues, compared to more than $960,000 for American industries overall. Oh, I know, I can hear the "but, we aren't making widgets" cries already, and how unfair it is to compare white collar writers in newsrooms with uneducated assembly line workers. Ad revenues once covered over this embarrassingly dilatory production level, but now it sticks out of any economic analysis of the industry like a big red sore thumb.
So I hope the Sun reporters kept those chairs after the protest ended, because they are soon going to need something to sit on. The days of filing your story and heading off for a leisurely wet lunch at Sascha's or Werner's are over.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...For years , the Newspapers' answer to the complaint that, if they print what's happening, it'll make things worse, has been " We print the truth, we print what people want to know, we print what's new. "
...And what they printed did make thinks worse for those involved. Bizarre crime stories led directly to copycat crimes. 'So what' said the Newspapers. Not our problem. Printed rumors broke businesses and reputations. Not our problem said the Newspapers. Couldn't be helped. 'We just did our job, publics right to know.'
...Well it's my right to know what the newspapers are going through. If the facts or even the rumors bust them, so what. They don't own the news. The news belongs to the ones who promulgate it. It never did belong to the newspapers. May they choke on their arrogance, and slowly.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The news belongs to those who promulgate it?

You'll be happy working at a North Korean PR firm.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

Is it really all management's fault that newspaper web sites fail?

I've been in this business long enough to remember a time when newsrooms had ample staff (newsrooms were never better staff ed than they were in the late '90s early 2000s) to keep both the print product and the web product well provided for content wise ... but the newsroom ignored the web site.

Back at a time before Google and MySpace and even Craigslist -- more robust news sites could have helped a lot to establish a strong position among readers on the web.

But ask anybody who has been running newspaper web sites since 1995/96 and they'll tell you the same thing: the newsrooms resisted.

For too long the attitude in newsrooms was: That's somebody else's problem. So long as the web monkey repurposed their drab content during a 3 a.m. update, they figured they need not even worry about the web site.

There are some very smart people who have worked in the new media side of the business over the past decade plus, all with great ideas, but most of those ideas went unimplemented because of lack of interest in the newsrooms.

Now a lot of these very same newsroom staffers who for years said the web site wasn't important are yelling at management for not being innovative enough.

Go read Yelvington here:

http://yelvington.com/node/453

and here:

http://yelvington.com/node/454

Steve has been doing this online thing twice as long as I have.

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Mr. Yesterday said...

Uh, since when have we wrung our hands about the effects of the news we're reporting? Usually, we revel in follow-up stories, in reporting MORE about something after we've splashed it across front pages.

So now, when it comes our way, we - gasp - consider the aftershocks of the news? Thinking that if we kep quiet, will actually improve a situation.

What a bunch of hypocrites.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

Oh, and let's not forget the sales staffs ...

6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read this again:

"Reporters, editors, columnists, copy editors, photographers love the paper and take pride in putting out an exceptional product, but they are tired of the cuts, they are tired of being told to “do more with less,” they are tired of the uncertainty."

Two assertions: "take pride" and "exceptional product".

Only the first is accurate.

Have there been 'exceptional' pieces in The Baltimore Sun from time to time?

Undoubtedly.

Has the Sun been consistently an exceptional product.

Not a chance.

"Trying hard" is not the same as 'succeeding'.

And, in an age of rapidly exploding subjects and content to cover, it is inevitable that an editorial model based on a relatively few people interpreting all this subject matter for its readers could not survive.

"Effort" and "pride" cannot substitute for knowledge and understanding. The Sun's hard working journalists simply could not understand all that they need to cover -- and, hence, it's simply not credible for them to claim to put out an 'exceptional product".

6:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seemingly every critic of newsroom cuts complains that "we're being asked to do more with less." That, to me, sums up exactly what's wrong with the news business. Even when a newspaper has 1,000 journalists and a huge news hole, they're not reporting on everything. They're making decisions, consciously or unconsciously, about what is worth covering. When resources are plenty, those decisions aren't as critical because odds are better that the things that matter most to the community will get covered even if half your coverage decisions are wrong.

Now, with fewer resources available, coverage decisions -- what are the most important issues, what is the best way to present information to the community -- are much more critical. But most newsrooms are stuck in the rut of approaching coverage in the same old way. Consider how much time, attention, and newshole is spent covering the minutia of the Mayor and City Council in whatever central city anchors a newspaper's market, notwithstanding that often time most people and most subscribers do not live (or perhaps even work) in the central city. "But it's news...", cry the purists. And so it is.

But consider this question: If your newsroom had one reporter, would you have them staff the same old boring city council meeting every week, rather than assigning them something else? Would that be the single most important newsgathering exercise you could undertake if you only had one reporter at your disposal?

Take a look through at the newspapers in the Top 100 metros on any weekday and truly ask yourself whether each individual staff-produced story is interesting, is essential to the workings of a democratic society, or contains useful information that can help a reader live their life. Tally up the number of times you answer "no," and you'll understand what the real problem is.

6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To those who anonymously gloat as hundreds and thousands of hard-working people lose their jobs:

As a journalist, I have worked on stories and projects where other people lost their manufacturing jobs and other jobs with nothing but compassion and empathy. Maybe not as compassion and empathy as one would now directly experience these things, but with compassion and empathy nonetheless. There was no gloating. No happiness. No superior attitude. And our names were attached to the projects.

We're human beings, and we deserved better. The people who lost their jobs in other industries deserved better. But they persevered, and so will we. The difference? We'll do it without support.

May this never happen to you.

What's so corrupt and depraved in your souls that you derive glee out this? I certainly never found other people's misery a source of pleasure. Go look in the mirror. A cold-hearted monster is looking back at you.

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The industry is in tumultuous period right now because of one simple fact -- Billions of dollars of Classified Advertising (real estate, help wanted, automotive) migrated to the internet.

It's not management's fault. It's not the workers' fault. The content provided by newspapers is still wonderful.

The union's anger is misplaced and is hurting the very institution it claims to love. The union should be demonstrating against Craig's List, monster.com. hotjobs, realtor.com, autotrader.com, etc. It should be supporting new products that will eventually bring growth back to the business.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:53 pm

> Newspaper employees bring in an average of about $138,000 per head in annual revenues, compared to more than $960,000 for American industries overall.

What's your source on that? I'm not necessarily doubting you, but I'd like to know where that statistic comes from.

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope that my following comments won't be discarded as "hacking", as similar ones were described previously by another journalist/blogger bemoaning industry shrinkage.

Is may come as a surprise to press professionals, but about half of America is cheering these developments. And not only smiling but outwardly gloating. They have been subjected - for about 20 years - to one-sided coverage of political reportage, and now they are getting their revenge.

I have been advocating for ten years on the internet for fellow conservatives to cancel their local liberal newspaper as a stratagem to fight the political and culture wars. So I do a little victory dance every time I read another round of job cuts.

I live in a conservative House District. The only daily paper in the region employs an openly homosexual man as its chief political reporter. Of course, one can expect that he inserts his political and cultural slant in all of his output to the point where it deserves ridicule rather than subscriber funds to pay his salary.

Psst . . . it isn't craiglist or the internet solely. 50% of your readership has abandoned you intellectually. Some may still be paying for the cartoons or the sports, but not for the shallowness of editorialism presented as "straight reporting."

Go ahead and deny. But it will only add to the agony . . and to the sweetness of my celebration.

Signed,
Johann Schadenfreude

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, who's the guy that says we get cushy lunches? Do you think we all work at a New York glossy circa 1980?

I work about 50 hours a week (unpaid overtime) and never, ever get a lunch. I guess I should really up my production, huh? I'm sure laziness on the part of us reporters is exactly what got the industry here...yes, we're getting what we deserve. I suppose I'll go spend my $40,000 salary on some caviar while I'm at it.

Clueless.

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's the readers, stupid. that's why you loudly react to the editorial cuts (including shrinking column inches and abandoned beats). it's so readers know what's going on with their coverage and maybe they will understand how it directly affects them when reporters stop showing up to government meetings.

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...and the Sun union president's argument is stale and misguided. a local owner couldn't do much more for the paper than a remote owner, unless the local owner had a ton of cash flow, a fresh vision, and didn't mind profit margins lower than industry standards.

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, I am sick and tired of hearing the bleating about bias in newspapers, ala Brent Bozell and his happy crew of media assassins. Listen to this: The top newspapers in this country are the New York Times and the Washington Post, and they also have the top Web sites, so they seem to have something that sells. Ditto the New Yorker, which endorsed John Kerry for the first time it ever endorsed. Go sound off on freerepublic.com if you don't like it, but it has nothing to do with what Alan is talking about here.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

xxxIs it really all management's fault that newspaper web sites fail?xxx
Absolutely:
_ It was management that culled the cubicles of the veterans who knew how to write and how to report, were passionate about their jobs, but a little befuddled with handling new technology. They wrote interesting stories.
_ It was management who replaced them with young fresh-faced kids just out of college where they learned how to use MySpace and Flckr and all these Web aps, but couldn't report in depth, and were too young to understand how to write.
_ It was management that larded down newsrooms with techies who could talk at length about the wonders of the Internet and the future of journalism-on-the-Web, but knew nothing of newspapering.
_ It was management that stripped newsrooms of rewrite banks and copy editors to save money, and declared it wanted only reporters who wrote pristine first drafts.
_ It was management that turfed out of their offices the crusty old-fashioned, green-eyeshade skeptical editors who warned management they were giving away the store by giving away to the Internet stories for free stories they had spent so much collecting, perfecting and editing.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:38 a.m. It comes from a Morningstar report which is proprietory, so I can't give you a link that will work.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, one big problem at the Baltimore Sun is that management has refused to integrate the Web staff with the newsroom, in any in-depth, meaningful way. In fact, our web staff is located in another office, about 4 miles away, with a lease that ain't exactly a bargain -- even as our huge building on Calvert Street has tons of room.

Why do we have this arrangement? Because a bunch of years ago, our union tried to unionize our web staff. But the company successfully argued that the Web was an intrinsically different operation than the print. And they won in arbitration.

So, years later, very few people in the newsroom have been exposed to the Web in any real, meaningful way, including our editors. Sure, we have a few dozen bloggers, but that's it. Journalists, if anything, are pros at creating content, and the best minds at this paper have not been given the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and do that kind of work.

Instead, we have created a few extra layers of positions of workers whose job it is to act as buffers between the web and the print -- because our management doesn't want union workers talking directly to non-union workers.

I will admit, years ago, there was heavy resistance to the Web in this newsroom. But it really started to melt away about 2-3 years ago.

Personally, my theory is this: The Sun is buying out and laying off unionized workers and, when it comes time to hire, they will hire non-unionized "news producers" for the website, and pay them $20,000 less.

If true, it's a cynical strategy on management's part, but it's certainly not dumb.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Johann Schadenfreude, your victory is as hollow as your life is empty.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To: 1:49

This country's system will work only if there is an even, honest mechanism for debate. The old system broke down. It became a megaphone for one political train of thought.

There was no conservative TV answer to the monotone of CBS/NBC/ABC. The wasn't a conservative balance to Time/Newsweek after US News began aping them. There still isn't.

That wasn't a healthy development, for it denied a place in the debate for the POV that the best government is that which governs least. The default was: how can government grow, and how can we politically destroy those who advocate against it. How can we best Bork?

Studies have demonstrated the bias of the news gatherers and disseminators, whether it was their polled party leanings or political contributions. The number approached 90% liberal. It had all the fairness and ratio of a 60Minutes hatchet job: 90% of the segment devoted to a conservative being pummeled, and 10% given to his answer while Mike Wallace raised his eyebrow in disbelief.

This is a good thing. The pus is being slowly drained. Equilibrium is being introduced again. Cheers!

Johann

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Mike Kelley said...

Here is a source for revenue per employee. It looks like newspapers don't stack up very well against the S&P500 average: http://www.reuters.com/finance/stocks/ratios?symbol=LEE.N&rpc=66

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Johann:
As Mr. Dooley said, a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. It is not, as some might wish it, to comfort the comfortable, and afflict the afflicted.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike Kelley: Thanks for finding that. I am not sure what use to make of this particular figure. The S&P 500 remains constant at $898,914 per employee. But the "industry average" varies from $75,985 (NWS) to $407,734, with most listed as $198,440. I don't know why that "industry average" figure would change.
For what it is worth, the revenue per employee is:
LEE $131,698
MNI $152,487
SSP $300,964
WPO $224.102
NYT $308,594
GCI $153,509
AHC $212,689

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

8:38 AM opined, "a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

That is a mindset which helped bring about this debacle. That's an admission of slant.

Newpapers - in their straight content - should just report the news, and let the readers decide what action to take about it. Crusading against one set of people while giving their opponents a pass is a recipe for loss of trust. That unfairness will alienate about half of the potential subscriber pool.

There have been a couple of responders above who ridiculously deny the existence of leftwing bias in the press. And there are people like yourself who feel it is a good thing. American readers can see through the bunk:

http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_20082/2008_presidential_election/belief_growing_that_reporters_are_trying_to_help_obama_win

"Monday, July 21

The belief that reporters are trying to help Barack Obama win the fall campaign has grown by five percentage points over the past month. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey found that 49% of voters believe most reporters will try to help Obama with their coverage, up from 44% a month ago.

Just 14% believe most reporters will try to help John McCain win, little changed from 13% a month ago."

The American press has a credibility problem. Both in the reality and perception of it. It's a national joke. No actions other than jobs cuts are proposed. The alienation of half of the potential readership goes on.

Sincerely,

Johann S.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

8:38 AM opined, "a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

That is a mindset which helped bring about this debacle. That's an admission of slant.

Newpapers - in their straight content - should just report the news, and let the readers decide what action to take about it. Crusading against one set of people while giving their opponents a pass is a recipe for loss of trust. That unfairness will alienate about half of the potential subscriber pool.

There have been a couple of responders above who ridiculously deny the existence of leftwing bias in the press. And there are people like yourself who feel it is a good thing. American readers can see through the bunk:

http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_20082/2008_presidential_election/belief_growing_that_reporters_are_trying_to_help_obama_win

"Monday, July 21

The belief that reporters are trying to help Barack Obama win the fall campaign has grown by five percentage points over the past month. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey found that 49% of voters believe most reporters will try to help Obama with their coverage, up from 44% a month ago.

Just 14% believe most reporters will try to help John McCain win, little changed from 13% a month ago."

The American press has a credibility problem. Both in the reality and perception of it. It's a national joke. No actions other than jobs cuts are proposed. No PR campaign to gloss the bias over will work, and moaning about it won't help.

Sincerely,

Johann S.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

xxx 8:38 AM opined xx

8:38 did not opine. It was Mr. Dooley who opined. It was I who averred that Mr. Dooley did not mean that to say the opposite.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been selling ads for a major daily for the past 25 years...and I am feeling the heat. Why is always the journalists who opt to state their pain - and never the ad guys? Many ad poeople are losing their jobs.

That said - what is the industry average on buy-outs?

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Privileged and cushioned" ... "The days of filing your story and heading off for a leisurely wet lunch at Sascha's or Werner's are over."

Obviously, this commentator has never worked at a weekly or small daily (or even regional daily) newspaper. Lunch? What's that? Oh yeah, it's that meal in the middle of the day. Filing a story and then heading out to drink? Just one story? Try writing and reporting up to five a day and still getting home at a decent hour to enjoy your family.

Geez, get your facts straight!

I no longer encourage interns and young reporters to stay in this business. I tell them to get out now while you have options and get a job that allows you to have a decent work/life balance.

5:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home