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CSotD: Shop Talk

Dr. MacLeod comments on the latest round of executions and self-immolation from Gannett, and I promise not to go into yet another rant about how Wall Street owners don’t care about the product, only about the profits, not because it isn’t central to the problem but because I’ve said it so often that it has ceased to be news.

However, MacLeod’s talk of “suicidal cutbacks” does beg for elaboration from the inside and, having worked in the marketing end of local papers, I can do that.

I had a publisher at one paper and my department head at another quit rather than make the cuts Corporate demanded, and I’ve left jobs when upper management made being there no fun and rendered it impossible to carry out the mission.

Except the saving money and boosting profits mission.

 

A dozen years ago, Richard Thompson laid out the process from the perspective of the newsroom and the average reader, and some of us remember when Gannett first introduced USA Today, the graphics-rich, content-free daily quickly dubbed the “McPaper” by more serious journalists.

These simple-minded changes, imitated across the industry, managed to dumb down the product without boosting its appeal.

At the same time, the draconian cuts demanded by Corporate left newsrooms without sufficient staff to produce quality work anyway, such that, when Gannett dropped print editions of some two dozen weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts this spring, WBUR quoted journalism professor Dan Kennedy:

 

The days when I could spend the day hanging out with Geraldine Ferraro and producing a major package for readers were ending as I left the newsroom in the early 90s and were a main reason I bailed out; it was becoming required to spend 20 minutes here and half an hour there and file four stories, none of which went a half-inch below the surface.

 

It wasn’t just the little guys. The Denver Post ran a courageous editorial about the cuts Alden Capital demanded in their Pulitzer-winning staff, with this illustration of the losses.

Funny aside: They kept Mike Keefe’s Pulitzer-winning cartoons displayed in the lobby for half a dozen years after he’d left. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed.

Oh well. HQ sold their downtown building and moved them all out to the suburban print facility, then continued slashing until the new newsroom was nearly empty and the paper, once a doorstop, had become a brochure.

Granted, part of that loss of bulk is loss of advertising, but part of the loss of advertising is loss of readership, and part of the loss of readership is loss of community connection.

Ninety-percent of success is showing up, and Corporate has made it impossible for papers to show up.

 

 

The latest development is that papers have decided to barely show up even in a nominal sense. These letters went out this week to some distant NYTimes and Washington Post subscribers, and it should be noted that neither is owned by vulture capitalists.

Having been in marketing/circulation, I recognize the continuing hassle of delivery: Liability concerns made newspapers abandon the kids who once delivered papers some time ago. You can’t responsibly send children out to wander the streets in the pre-dawn darkness.

Then, as the notion of “independent contractors” gained legal footing, you couldn’t make many real demands of the people who were willing to drive around tossing papers. The turnover was constant and the missed-deliveries were massive.

Contracting with distant delivery companies can’t be fun.

But leave us not kid one another. The Times knows, as the Stones sang, “Who wants yesterday’s papers?” while the Post surely doesn’t think people are going to make that second pot of coffee to wander through the Sunday paper on Monday morning.

This is a move to get people to accept the on-line product and abandon print, and their notion of “distant” subscribers will certainly draw closer over time.

There will be howls from print loyalists, though, in my mind, this strikes at a younger demographic than the folks who raise hell if a paper drops Mary Worth or the bridge column.

However, it’s not a choice between a broadsheet or a smartphone.

Really reading a paper on-line requires a good-sized tablet if not a desktop, but, once they recover from the shock of the new, I could easily see a couple on their tablets at the breakfast table, even handing them back and forth with a “Did you see this?”

The explanations by NYTimes and WashPo seem a bit like telling your kids the dog has gone to live with a nice old couple on a farm, but it’s better to let readers decide to make the changeover than to simply impose it.

And, while eventually abandoning print entirely would be tough for the folks in the backshop, among whom I had many friends, it seems inevitable anyway and it wouldn’t be so bad if it meant preserving quality in the final product.

If that were what it meant.

Scroll up and look at that picture of the Denver Post’s award-winning news team, because whatever the Times and the Post do in the future, I promise you the Gannetts and Aldens are not going to stop at cleaning out the backshop.

Two observations I’ve been making for years before this latest series of slashes:

  1. If Lowe’s were run by a newspaper chain, the manager of the Palm Beach store would be told how many snowblowers the store in Minneapolis had sold, and would be ordered to sell that many or be fired.
  2. God help any circulation director whose home team wins the Super Bowl or World Series, because the team may suck the next season, but Corporate will still demand the same number of single-copy sales that were generated during the exciting run to the top. Again, the price of failure is firing.

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Sure. For instance, I grabbed this Ed Hall cartoon because it’s the best depiction I’ve seen of Iran’s hijab rebellion. The government may whack this one or that one, but others will pop up.

 

Then Ed posted this screen grab of the cartoon being discussed on a news program in France.

So take heart: There are people who take editorial cartoons — and other forms of journalism — seriously.

Keep on keepin’ on.

 

Community Comments

#1 Mark B
October/15/2022
@ 7:11 am

The Post also just got rid of the Sunday “Outlook” section, which was the only section I still read. Until a few years ago the Post used to give away free copies on my campus. I never saw a student read one, just faculty.

#2 Mike Peterson
October/15/2022
@ 9:33 am

College copies were paid for either by the school (activity fees,
whatever) or by corporate sponsors and had to be some place the general public wasn’t allowed. It was required that the paper count the returns (uncirculated copies) and only count the ones picked up as paid circulation.

A lot of honor system in that, of course. Which for those of us in the business is what you call a joke.

We also would get a sponsor to pay for papers we’d hand out at trade shows and sporting events so people could drop it in the next trash can. That, too, qualified as “paid circulation” for purposes of setting ad rates.

Hotel copies were yet another source: You actually were supposed to agree to get the paper slipped under your door, or get a 50 cent refund. Again, the honor system came largely into play.

#3 Mary McNeil
October/15/2022
@ 5:15 pm

Well – thanks for confirming my suspicions of why The Akron Beacon Journal – now a Gannett paper – can’t even hire carriers so we (prepaid ) subscribers can actually get our papers on the six days they are actually printed. The other local paper went to the USPS last Summer.

#4 George Paczolt
October/16/2022
@ 5:41 am

I’d dropped the print edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch three years ago in favor of my iPad, and have been all the happier ever since. It was more convenient to read, nothing to recycle, and made it easy to post occasional interesting articles to my Facebook account.

And any remaining doubts I may have had with the move were obliterated with the Great Comics Slaughter last month when the RTD cut three pages of comics to a half page, leaving me with Peanuts and LuAnn of the strips I regularly follow, but tossing a hodge-lodge of about twenty strips on an electronic-only page. Shouting that from the rooftops in the hope we wouldn’t notice the paper copy gutting. And still sending me to Go Comics and Comics Kingdom for 90% of the strips I regularly follow.

I’m convinced that newspapers are only doing print versions because their product has that inconvenient name, newsPAPER.

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