CSotD: The Voice of One Crying in the Desert

David Fitzsimmons drew this cartoon in 2008, but now he’s “writing about us” himself, or, at least, “us” in a modified sense, since he took a buyout in January and became a freelancer. (h/t to Michael Rhode)

Temporarily, he predicts:

Readers familiar with the industry will reel in horror to learn that the Arizona Daily Star is jointly owned by Gannett and Lee, but then, having indigested that information, will be less surprised to learn that on Monday, Lee Enterprises — which controls the news side — slashed about 25% of the Star’s editorial staff.

That’s according to a story in the Tucson Sentinel.com, a non-profit news site staffed by survivors of the Daily Star and the late Tucson Citizen.

Yeah, I don’t think the new editor is gonna like that, as soon as the absentee owners in Davenport, Iowa, choose one. They laid off the current editor, who had held the job for seven years and had worked at the Star for another 17.

They also fired the editorial page editor, who had been in that position since 2004.

Veterans may be knowledgeable, but rookies are affordable.

Fitzsimmons’ “retirement” in January was part of an earlier set of cuts, in which he was given the chance to take a buyout to help reduce the number of people being summarily fired. We’ll get back to that.

You might call it “death by a thousand cuts.” As the Sentinel reports, “In the past 15 years, the Star’s newsroom has dropped from more than 120 reporters, photographers and editors to a contact list that now numbers just two or three dozen.”

Despite his furious attack on Lee Enterprises, Fitzsimmons writes “I will continue to support and subscribe to The Arizona Daily Star because, like you, I want journalism to survive in these perilous times. Even if it is limping along we must continue to support the extraordinary writers who remain.”

Well, there’s his mistake. He should have left town and subscribed to a paper far, far from Tucson, so he wouldn’t have to watch the next, sadly predictable act.

I say that, having recently dropped in on a paper from which I fled in 1999, when the newsroom had about 20 reporters. It was down to seven, but at least I didn’t have to watch it happen.

And when I worked for the Denver Post, I telecommuted the job and only went out there twice a year. At first, we searched for conference rooms on the six or seven bustling floors of their downtown building, but each time I returned, it was — as this photo suggests — bustling less. Finally they sold the building and added a newsroom to their printing plant.

Last time I was there, there were about three times more empty desks than full ones. But, again, I didn’t have to watch.

I just had to take agonized phone calls from my boss, saying she’d heard more cuts were coming, and wondering if she’d have a job by the weekend.

You should read Fitzsimmons’ piece, and maybe subscribe to his Substack, which would get you his cartoons (He’s still with Cagle) as well as his well-wrought essays.

Subscribing to a Substack doesn’t require payment, BTW, though this is a good time to remind you that, while you certainly can’t afford to support them all, you should be supporting a couple of the cartoonists on this list.

If you’re a fan of comics.

Juxtaposition of More Than a Decade Ago

Constant Readers have seen these before, but that’s okay because the point is that this has been happening for a long time, and well before either of these comics ran.

When Craigslist launched in 1995, some newspaper people flinched and recognized the threat, but Corporate — any corporate, all the corporates — pooh-poohed the idea of doing anything to counter the potential loss of revenue.

As for news coverage, I remember one publisher in our chain screaming “Don’t give it away! Don’t give it away!” but everyone else dismissed him, because they were sure we’d make it up in clicks. They didn’t know what clicks were or how they could possibly translate into money, but they had read that this was how you did it, and so we all did it.

Seems to have worked out pretty well.

The funny thing — funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha — is that newspapers can still be relatively profitable, if you don’t own more than two or three and you don’t get too grandiose and you don’t decide you need a whole lot of polo ponies.

I edited a tiny, twice-a-week paper in Maine that made money but didn’t win Pulitzers. We covered local news, but we were chock full of wedding announcements, engagement announcements, (paid) obituaries, high school sports, Cub Scout award ceremonies and what I called “Little Old Lady columns” that let everyone know when the next chicken dinner would be held and who was home from Iraq.

About that last: A local boy was killed in Iraq, and there was a controversy at the funeral because a TV station from the city came up and tried to sneak a recording device to the graveside. I was talking to a local politician later and said, “But we were there,” and he said, “Yeah, but that was Sheila. They wanted her there.”

There’s what made it work. You can laugh, if you like, at the Cub Scout news and the Little Old Lady columns, but that’s what people want. That’s how you stay in business. And it’s kinda fun, too.

And it’s also easier, BTW, to stick to the stuff that works than to try to come up with brilliant innovations that probably won’t, even if they are recommended by expensive consultants and approved by people in expensive suits.

It’s also easier if most of the people you know are your readers and not just the other folks at the club.

Which reminds me: Tonight is Nerd Prom!

I was gonna watch, but I have an opportunity to be staked to an anthill and smeared with honey. Pretty easy choice.

Anyway, there are a lot of stories to tell, but I’m running out of space. Still, I promised to get back to buyouts, so here’s my advice on that:

If they offer you, personally, a buyout, take it. If they just dangle it over a group, keep your head down.

At one daily where I had worked for over a dozen years, they offered a buyout in our department, and said it would go to the senior person who requested it. I looked around and realized I was senior by at least five years.

It was generous. If I recall right, it was a pay-period’s worth for every six months of service, which for me translated to more than three months’ pay. But I waited until the last day before I went to see the publisher and tell her I wanted it.

“That buyout is not available in your department,” she said.

At which point I realized our department head was senior to me by about a year. Turns out he had demanded a buyout because he didn’t want to lay any of us off, and they agreed, so long as he didn’t tell anyone he was taking it. Or that he was leaving.

It was a brilliant system, because it meant that, in each department, they now had a list of people who might be willing to leave, under the proper inducement, without the expense of a buyout.

In my case, it meant being told to stop putting in all that time on my actual job and, instead, begin laying out ads, special sections and the weekly TV insert. And they were right: Doing intern-level work made me miserable.

Eventually, I quit and they replaced me with a part-timer, which was much cheaper than a 13-year full-time employee.

The good news was that I found a terrific job at a somewhat larger paper, working for a boss I really liked.

I was there for almost a year and a half before it was purchased.

By Lee Enterprises.

6 thoughts on “CSotD: The Voice of One Crying in the Desert

  1. “… it’s easier … to stick to the stuff that works than to try to come up with brilliant innovations that probably won’t.”

    30 years ago I worked in R&D for a U.S. consumer electronics company. The statement above reflects the attitude of management. It also explains why there is little to no consumer electronics manufacturing in the U.S. today.

    I was told, specifically, that “we are not here to innovate.” And that it made more sense to let the Japanese companies take the risk of introducing new products — after the market proved which products were successes we could just copy them.

    1. “The stuff that works” not that stuff that’s good enough, and certainly not the stuff we should keep doing because we’ve always done it that way.

      The stuff that works, and that works better than the brilliant ideas of some guy who got hired not because he knows anything about newspapers but because he sold a lot of toothpaste.

      Innovation specific to an actual thing well-understood by the person making the suggestion, should always be welcomed.

  2. My university is doing the same thing. I took a buyout (I was going to retire pretty soon anyway) but I won’t be replaced. If I am, it’ll be by an adjunct who will be paid what amounts to minimum wage. They’re also cutting staff to the point that even the students notice. (It’s difficult not to notice when your financial aid is late because the financial aid office has 3 people trying to do the work of 8 employees).

    The only program that is prospering is the business school, where they’re teaching students to do the same thing to whatever organization they end up working for.

  3. This paragraph confused me

    “About that last: A local boy was killed in Iraq, and there was a controversy at the funeral because a TV station from the city came up and tried to sneak a recording device to the graveside. I was talking to a local politician later and said, “But we were there,” and he said, “Yeah, but that was Sheila. They wanted her there.”

    1) Why would a TV station put a recording device at a graveside?
    2) Why would you say “But we were there”?
    3) Who is Sheila?

  4. 2) As the publisher, “we” meant his paper.

    3) Sheila was the paper’s reporter at the funeral.

    1. Right. I should only have been the editor but, at that point, happened to also be interim publisher. The TV station snuck in a voice recorder to steal audio to play over long shots of the group at the graveside. People hated them for their violation of a private time. But, as said, Sheila was different.

      When word came of the kid’s death, Sheila — who had no college degree in anything — just went over to the house and knocked on the door. She ended up sitting around the kitchen table with his father, his stepmom and his mother, talking about the boy and what he meant to them.

      The paper was part of the community and so was Sheila. I taught her a lot about formal journalism, but she taught me a lot about belonging to your readers.

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