About a month ago I started to hear rumors about layoffs of long-time staff at the Statesman Journal newspaper here in Salem, Oregon. Now it's happening -- after 15 years at the paper, business and City Hall reporter Michael Rose has been fired.
Yesterday he tweeted:
A little update: My 15-yr career with the SJ ended Dec 5. I was downsized. New twitter handle: mrose_nw. Thanks for following.
Last Saturday night I talked with Michael at a fundraising event. He said that everybody at the Statesman Journal had to submit letters of resignation, with some people not being rehired.
I asked him why competent reporters like him were being let go, while incompetent editors and executives stay on. Part of his response was to tell me, "It's all about Picasso. Not the artist, but its spelled the same."
Ooh! A Gannett Corporation (Gannett owns the Statesman Journal) code word! Naturally I had to fire up Google as soon as I got home.
Turns out that Picasso is the name for Gannett's latest "newsroom of the future" strategy. After reading about Picasso, I'm underwhelmed. And worried about the future of serious journalism in this town.
Digital "clicks" are being valued more highly than solid reporting. Understand: there's nothing wrong with online journalism; I'm engaged in a form of that right now.
It's the motivation behind Gannett's restructuring that Michael Rose fell victim to that bothers me. The "newsroom of the future" is designed to save money in a time of declining readership and advertising revenues.
My attitude is, hey, I already can read all kinds of fluffy, on-the-spot, subjective, human interest, straight-from-a-smart-phone stuff on the Internet. I really don't want my subscription to the Statesman Journal buying me more of the same.
The best overview of Gannett's new strategy that I came across is Ken Doctor's The newsonomics of Gannett's "newsrooms of the future." Here's some excerpts that seem relevant to what's going on with the Statesman Journal.
Lost in the many shuffles within Gannett in the last month — separating into two companies, buying Cars.com, announcing the new newsrooms — is its next major round of newsroom job cuts.
After years of shrinking, Gannett has decided to get yet another jump on the revenue declines to come. Figuring that print advertising will continue to decline annually in the high single digits — as it has for the last three and is this year — the company is taking about 15 percent out of many, if not all, of its 81 community newsroom budgets now, preparing for 2015 and 2016.
That 15 percent is in dollars, not jobs. So it makes sense for publishers and editors to take out the highest-paid jobs, as many companies have done. Translation: More than 15 percent of editorial and community knowledge is being lost.
It’s easy to paint the laying off/buying out of veterans as simply getting rid of the digitally clueless. There’s some of that, of course, but this is mainly a financial exercise, as is most of the change we see sweeping the American news industry this year. Gannett’s editors (and some are quite good) are left to make sense of their smaller deck of cards and work around the edges of a one-size-fits-all reshuffling to preserve the integrity of their work.
Gannett’s cut is notable because it’s so large — on top of more than a half-decade of cuts — and because it anticipates the scale of a “rightsizing” of these newsrooms for next two years. That’s optimistic, given that the print slide is accelerating in certain ways.
There are several reasons for the downward spiral of local news companies. One, though, is very apparent but seldom acknowledged by publishers: Most news publishers are providing lower quality products year after year and charging more for them.
That’s not Gannett’s announced strategy, but it’s been its de facto one. And unfortunately, it’s not alone. Within the last month, we’ve gotten new numbers on newsroom loss.
...Gannett papers’ public pitch, inasmuch as there is one, can be summed up in a word: More. There’s neither evidence that readers want more, nor that these diminished staffs can really create more, at least more of any meaningful quality for readers.
Yet a third part of this particular reimagining, along with the job cuts and the new job titles, is a greater emphasis on counting. As we’ve seen the hamster wheel put into effect here and there, counting pageviews seems ascendant. That’s ironic, because in 2014, the direct relationship between pageview (or unique visitor) growth and digital advertising growth is becoming increasingly weaker.
...“More,” as expreesed in Nashville and more widely, isn’t a winning market idea. Further, the reading public — a.k.a. customers — could care less about internal shuffling. They want better products and services, and that’s not what Gannett is announcing.
The lack of product acceptance isn’t an abstract issue for Gannett. The company’s paywall strategy has stumbled, as it has seen double-digit loss of print circulation volume in some markets. Why? It raised prices in double-digits while failing to offer paying readers a reason to stick with their papers. Its introduction of USA Today content in its local papers, a higher quality/lower cost plan, may make good financial sense, but it’s unlikely to sway local readers who buy papers for local news.
So for long-time subscribers like me (37 years), the Statesman Journal indeed seems to be on a downward spiral.
They're letting senior reporters like Michael Rose go, replacing them with younger, cheaper staff who are comfortable with tweeting, blogging, messaging, Facebooking, and other must-have digital skills in this new journalistic age.
But I don't give a crap -- or at least not much of one -- about all that. I happily pay $15 a month to the New York Times to get its digital edition. I fork out that money to get indepth, lengthy, well-edited stories about the most important stuff that's happening in this country and the world.
Likewise, for most of my 37 Statesman Journal-subscribing years I've been happy with the newspaper, because it took seriously its responsibility to be Salem's "paper of record." As noted in a bunch of blog posts (here's a recent one), I no longer feel this way.
Confidence in the Statesman Journal seems to be at an all-time low, based on what I hear from a wide variety of people. Many have given up completely on reading the paper. Others, like me, continue to subscribe even though we've disturbed by the SJ's loss of journalistic integrity.
It doesn't look to me like Gannett's Picasso/newsroom of the future strategy is going to improve this situation. You can read more about the strategy here, here, and here. It's interesting to read descriptions in these links of the new job descriptions.
Engagement Editor I
Plans and executes engagement opportunities to maximize community impact and story resonance in print, digital, community event and social media settings. Oversees content that highlights discussions and debates on important community issues. Should possess expertise in social media, marketing and events planning. Connects content with creative ways to generate community interaction both virtually and through events. May directly supervise the work of producers. Salary range: $36,000-$54,000
Hmmmm... "engagement opportunites," "story resonance, "highlights discussions and debates," "generate community interaction."
I was a journalism major my first year in college. I dreamed of digging out the truth, exposing wrongdoers, investigating important issues people needed to know about. This "Engagement Editor" thing sounds weird to me.
As a progressive, I'm fine with change. What's going on with the Statesman Journal and newspapers in general just doesn't seem like progress to me.