Saturday, June 28, 2008

The week that was ... moving along the grief stages

Perhaps this last full week of June 2008 just past will be looked back on as the week the final death throes of the newspaper industry began -- 900+ layoffs, copy-editing jobs to India (and more details on an earlier move that have been largely overlooked, a redesign in Orlando that has become the icon -- and lightning rod -- for all manner of writings about a troubled business. (Not to mention a plunging stock market that is likely to make that trouble even greater.)

Earlier, of course, was the debacle the AP made out of issuing DMCA take-down notices to a blogger -- the worst thing for AP being that it no longer is in the background; it now is in the cross-hairs of an enraged digiterati that can make its life hell. (For AP, being rather ham-handed over the years in its public relations, this is not a good thing.) And before that, Gannett's restructuring of its pension plan -- eliminating the defined benefit and "enhancing" its 401(k) matches in company stock (hmmm, checked the stock price lately?).

Seeing the death throes requires, of course, that newspapers must die, and I'm not quite there yet, though I think they (and, again, let's not confuse the newspaper with the newsroom) will exist in radically different frequency and content as we move forward.

But if nothing else, this week seems to mark a leap along the five stages of grief (I think I was one of the first to suggest what was happening in the business could be tracked using the Kubler-Ross model.) It seems we have gone from denial and anger, almost leapfrogged bargaining, and are heading into deep depression.

It's not monolithic, however, and there are vestiges of the bargaining stage. Notable among them is the American Copy Editors Society's new site, whyeditingmatters.org, where everyone is invited to come and post their paeans to the value of good editing. Too little and too late, like much of the industry (Mark Potts, in what may well be called a "Potts-shot," has an evisceration of the industry and what has happened and why in eight quick bullet points), yet at least it is something that may may copy editors (me included) indeed feel better about themselves and their jobs.

The reality, of course, is that a list of praises for editing is going to be about as effective in a boardroom faced with plunging revenues, high debt loads, and a lack of future clarity as those sandbags were atop sodden levees along the Mississippi this week. If the foundation is crumbling, all the other stuff doesn't matter. If ACES wanted to save members' jobs, it needed to begin doing it long before they started rolling to India and in a way that allows them to talk dollars and sense, not feel-goods. It's not too late, but a "tell me your good stories" Web site, while a nice start, is far from the solution.

So much has been written about the throes of this week, I'm going to point you to a few more below. But three things keep floating to the top of my mind:

-- The snark in me tends to want to say it's not necessarily a bad thing that journalists are finding their larder to be stocked with a fair amount of humble pie. A few more franks-and-beans dinners might reconnect us (yes, I include me in the "us") with the reality that many of our readers (or hoped-for readers) are going through. The economic woes in this country are much deeper than you would ever get a sense of by reading most newspapers. And the serious disconnect of many of our largest papers from their communities is being borne out by what is happening in front of us.
-- Having gotten that snarkiness out, I do have some deep fears. Fears for students dedicated to journalism who are among the best and brightest we need, and who are seriously questioning whether law -- or even flipping burgers -- might be a more secure career move. Fear for democracy, too. Not in the "we're just too important to fail" orientation we have heard from too many news organizations and their journalists. But in true concern about what institution will be left with the throw weight to take on government at all levels (and provide some shield for all those involved in journalism - be they full-time professionals or those thrust into the position by the news) in an increasingly legalistic society where he with the most lawyers stands the better chance of winning. (What delicious irony, then, that journalism increasingly seems to be the province of the pre-law major?)
-- We remain too focused on the major metro papers. Cutbacks are happening in smaller newsrooms, too, but mostly in positions unfilled, not the bloodbath we keep reading about. These smaller newsrooms will be no less challenged in the coming decades than are the larger ones now. As our society moves to become digitally mobile, any "local" advantage they may have will be diluted -- yet with a few exceptions many of these newsrooms lack the technical and financial wherewithal (as you will see if you spend much time clicking around their Web sites, if you can find them at all). And let's not forget that the vast majority of newsrooms in this nation are in small communities. (And even some of those community papers with big-pocket parents are having a bad year.)

Having said all that, let me point you to some other readings with useful perspectives on this week:
  • David Sulivan: You could do worse than continue to check on David's insightful posts. His take on the carnage is that newspapers have a role, but in the headlong rush to the digital exits we're not figuring out what that role is so that we can sustan it. And he's back later in the week with one of his great comparisons between newspapers and department stores. In this one, looking at the Orlando redesign, he takes on that delicate balance between innovative change and just angering your customers. (I identify; my local paper loves to jump stories to separate parts of the "A" section, which just screams "it's convenient for us, but the heck with you." Unfortunately, the Internet lets the customers scream back.)
  • Philip M. Stone: David points to one of Stone's articles on Follow the Media* in which Stone's 30-something son buys the Orlando paper at his father's request and issues this withering assessment: My generation, as well as future generations, will be able to access information literally on demand, in full color, and then be able to, just as easily, get as many different viewpoints on that in a span of minutes. How on earth does a newspaper, printed hours before, compete with that?

    “Today’s society is not one that relies on their city paper to educate them on what happened yesterday; we are a generation that insists upon immediate and detailed media that allows us to know news as it is happening. It is for these reasons that the Sentinel, and papers everywhere, can give themselves all the makeovers they wish to give, but at the end of the day the makeover will suffer the same result as the content within it -- it will be old news.”

    Stone also has a good roundup of some of the other industry business decisions that didn't get quite the coverage but are no less telling.
  • Fding to Black, one of the new blogs covering the industry demise, has some other, lesser-reported layoffs.
(*FTM, by the way, has become one of my favorite media sites.)

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