Newsroom Deck Chairs

By Paul Bernish

This forum has devoted (perhaps to a fault) lots of words about the slow-motion decline of daily print newspapers. For good reason: for more than 200 years, daily newspapers were the primary source of information, opinion and perspective for successive generations of readers. Even with the advent of radio, movie news, and then television, the daily paper was always present in most households and offices, including the Oval Office.

No more. With few exceptions, journalism is transforming to an online and mobile environment, while the printed paper struggles amid declining revenue and a general public sentiment that its best days are long gone.

The market for publishing companies reflects this downward spiral. Earlier moves to acquire broadcast and digital properties are now looking prescient, as companies spin off their publishing assets into separate entities, where they face a decidedly gloomy future.  Meanwhile, capital investment in people and systems is pouring into digital, with investors urging faster action and bigger payoffs.

Two major publishing companies, The New York Times and Gannett, demonstrate the differing paths their executive suites believe will salvage the business. What these strategies also, and more fundamentally, indicate, is how journalism will look well into the future.

Gannett, recently spun off as a new company made up solely of some 81 newspapers, is taking what one might call the “retrofit” approach. Its papers have collectively let go hundreds of editors and reporters over the past several years; those who left must now re-apply for their jobs (albeit jobs completely changed from what they were) or seek a new role within a much-altered newsroom.

Typical of this approach is what’s happened at the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer.  Editor Carolyn Washburn’s recent public letter detailed a new hiring procedure, prefaced by the observation that. “Yes, we are still a newspaper, but we also do parts of what TV and radio do. And more. It’s a fun new world.” All current reporters and editors must reapply for their jobs and convince an internal review committee that they have the skills and smarts to make it in a different — but not totally defined — newsroom environment.

Needless to say, this awkward procedure has unloosed a torrent of complaints within the company and among subscribers, while reporters and editors still standing are facing momentous career decisions. Gannett’s game plan appears to be that newspaper journalists can be re-programmed as “reporting entrepreneurs,” in a news operation where, in Washburn’s description, Gannett is “significantly redefining every job.”

The New York Times, by contrast, is replacing the old with the new; that is, as veteran reporters take early retirement, their places are being taken by a new generation of digital journalists trained in marketing engagement, social media prowess, digital creativity and a kind of hipster sensibility.  No one is saying so publicly, but you have the sense that the Times is looking for people who did not grow up reading the daily paper. Rather than retrofitting, a la Gannett, the Times is reinventing the journalist-cum-editor, while asserting that quality reporting will remain as its distinctive “brand.”

It is also responding to the findings of a searing, in-house evaluation done in 2013 that concluded that the Times was falling behind more aggressive competitors in fully embracing the digital realm.  I wrote about this around the time the confidential document was leaked.

Huffington Post recently observed that despite the many recent rounds of Times‘ newsroom cutbacks, overall journalism headcount has remained remarkably stable.  How is that possible?  Huffington’s Michael Calderone explains it this way:

“The Times has cut hundreds of jobs over the past five years, like other newspapers, responding to plummeting print advertising revenue. But unlike the competition, the Times has kept hiring and is expected to add staff in areas like digital, video, mobile and audience engagement.”

(This transformation is increasingly apparent on the Times online, where new features such as a scrolling news aggregator now appears on the landing page, and lengthy feature article are often accompanied by stunning graphics and video).

It will be interesting to see how these differing approaches to maintaining daily journalism as a functioning — and functional — enterprise will pan out. If I were a betting man, I’d go with the Times‘ approach, which conveys an all-in approach by the Sulzberger family to insure that its flagship property remains in the forefront of journalism, no matter what platform it takes.

Journalism’s deck chairs are being re-arranged, inexorably. As citizens and news junkies, we can only hope that the chairs continue to be occupied by folks who know what news is, and how to report it in a way that informs and reveals.

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