Newspaper layoffs and Journalism Jenga

the Jenga

Ed Garcia via Flickr

I see a lot of online angst about the chopping of close to 50 jobs at The Plain Dealer, my former employer. Fair enough; that’s a lot of people — a lot of good people. And according to reports, 20 more were cut at the weekly Sun papers, also owned by Advance and soon to become part of the new Northeast Ohio Media Group. Good people gone there, too.

But also in the news are more than 150 layoffs at Gannett papers. The Baton Rouge Advocate, which has made much of new hires as it tries to steal New Orleans readers from the Times-Picayune, is simultaneously cutting jobs in the home office. The Chicago Sun-Times got a lot of heat for wiping out its photo staff, but some of those who decried it as an attack on photojournalism didn’t put it in the context of many other slashes at the paper, another of my former employers. The New York Post had its round of job cuts a few months ago. And the list keeps going.

On the other hand, the Register in California’s Orange County is hiring journalists by the bushelful.

Because the Register’s bet is on beefing up print and putting online behind a stiff paywall, while Advance’s is on shrinking the reliance on print and keeping its websites free, they’re being set up as polar opposites. CJR’s Ryan Chittum, who likes to insist that he found the real reasons for Advance’s changes on the grassy knoll, said of the Register, “This is the anti-Advance, anti-liquidation approach.” It’s not just him; the American Society of News Editors set up a panel with the Register’s editor and the editor — sorry, VP of content — of Advance’s New Orleans operations, as the two sides of the issue.

I have two problems with this.

Do the numbers add up?

The first is that I suspect it overstates the extent to which Advance is cutting jobs. It’s reducing payroll, certainly. Advance newspapers traditionally paid staff very well, as a defense against union organization. I started at Advance’s Saginaw News right out of college, and I was paid so well that within a year I could replace my ancient AMC Gremlin with a new Honda Civic and buy an Osborne 1, the first “portable” computer.

While union-represented staff at The Plain Dealer were stuck in a holding pattern on pay for years, and both union and exempt staff there were saddled with pay cuts and furloughs, it still seems reasonable to suspect that some of the younger, less-experienced people the Northeast Ohio Media Group will hire are going to cost the company less than the long-term employees who left in the recent layoff.

But the NEOMG is hiring, and so did the Syracuse operation and the others.

Advance is much shyer than the Register’s owners about divulging numbers, so I don’t know how the before-and-after newsroom numbers compare. It’s my impression that the cuts outside the newsrooms, and among jobs directly related to the print product — copy editors, page designers — have been significant. Yet the number of people who create content (as Advance phrases it) seems to be about the same as before. And while Advance Digital is certainly reducing its expenses over the long run, it also is putting real money into the changes — new equipment, new offices, and a lot of hires for what used to be a very small headquarters staff.

Explaining Journalism Jenga

That’s one problem. The second is that the Advance vs. Register story misses a bigger and better matchup: Advance, the Register and, perhaps, Digital First Media, vs. the rest of the industry.

How can I lump Advance and the Register together? Because both companies have a strategy, one that looks beyond the immediate bottom line. Because both believe survival requires radically restructuring operations. Because both are not willing to practice Journalism Jenga.

That’s what’s happening at most American newspapers. Every year or so, they pull more newsroom positions out of their tottering towers. They seem to believe that they can continue to deliver seven-day-a-week print papers, from newsrooms organized in much the same way as ever, even as the number of journalists falls.

Advance’s papers had been doing the same thing. We went through buyouts and layoffs at The PD. The number of names on the staff list kept shrinking, but the titles and responsibilities largely remained the same. I saw our business department — where I’d been an editor for years — get cut by a third or more. We still had a daily Business section. But trying to keep up the amount of local business news with a smaller staff — and one with less experience in financial reporting — became harder and harder.

The changes that started sweeping through Advance’s cities a couple years ago go far beyond reducing payroll. With the exception of small groups in “pub hubs” putting out the print editions, all journalism resources are focused online. No more holding off on posting news until a complete story is done by print’s evening deadlines. New kinds of jobs are created, like the community engagement specialists who are supposed to find new ways to make the sites into conversations. Part of that’s basic comment moderation, but it goes far beyond that.

I admit that the Advance strategy might not work. And the details of how it works continue to change as it discovers mistakes (like the original screaming yellow zonkers website theme) and fixes them.

But just accept for the moment that Advance has a plan, and it involves a radical reinvention of the newsroom. So does the Register. Both reject Journalism Jenga. Advance says the future is digital and will have to have lower costs to go with lower revenue. The Register apparently believes print has a long time to run, and thinks that increasing staff will pay off in the long run with increased revenue. Both believe you can’t be fish and fowl; you have to pick online or print.

Just tell me we’ve got a plan

Other companies have paid lip service to change, by adding online-oriented jobs or giving reporters smartphones. But for the most part, they’re still print-focused, still churning out the same kinds of stories on the same kinds of deadlines, with smaller and smaller staffs. If anything, they’re trying to satisfy both the print and online needs, which gets ridiculous with fewer people. Sooner or later, they’ll pull out one stick too many and come tumbling down.

(Digital First Media is a tougher one to figure out. It’s talking about being, well, digital first. People like Steve Buttry say the right things about change. But the company’s financial issues would make me nervous, and it has not been quite as eager to turn its back on print. On the other hand, Digital First has some nifty vans.)

Another key difference between the planners and the Journalism Jenga players: I know people at the Register who are very, very happy in their jobs and hopeful for the future. And I know people at Advance sites (once they’ve had a chance to cope with the rocky startovers) who are equally happy and equally hopeful. How hopeful can one be in a newsroom where the Jenga tower is getting shakier year by year?

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  1. By Robert Schoenberger

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