Friday, June 22, 2007

Media matters

When the going gets tough, the tough get going –through the staff roll to see who they can layoff. At least that was the implication Thursday when the Schenectady Daily Gazette laid of more than a dozen workers. Reports from inside the Capital Region’s only independently owned paper suggest upwards of 18 staffers were axed altogether, with at least five of those cuts coming from the newsroom.

They didn’t even wait until Friday to start swinging the ax. Somewhere in the office world, Bob Slydell is rolling his eyes.

Any way you slice it, the paper decided to focus roughly a third of the cuts in the newsroom, which is in fact what separates the paper from the freely circulated Pennysavers that come in the mail each week. Only in the newspaper industry does a business limit the ability to ply its trade in order to remain fiscally solvent. Put succinctly, the entire notion of producing less of what brings in the money is ludicrous from any sort of business perspective.

And to add insult to injury for the flailing paper, the Times Union reported the cuts just moments after they occurred, an insider claimed, even surprising some of the remaining employees who first learned of the layoffs through the TU website. The Gazette’s leading competitor gleefully recounted how a veteran photographer and two longtime writers –a basketball reporter and the former education reporter –were given four weeks’ severance pay and shown to the door.

“It’s a difficult time in the economy,” quoted Gazette General Manager Dan Beck. “This is unfortunate and difficult. At the same time we're proud of our 100-year history in serving the public.”

So trying are these economic times, the paper is actually planning an aggressive online expansion into the world of electronic media, according to an internal memo leaked from the paper. Yes, while the ax was swinging in the newsroom, the Gazette was actively pursuing a new hire to become the online editor to “develop strategies” for the cyber-launch, which is apparently scheduled for sometime this fall.

The layoffs also came at a time when the Gazette’s circulation has picked up. Nearly 500 additional papers were sold Monday through Friday. These gains, however, are obscured by the TU article, which correctly but misleadingly reported the paper’s 20 percent overall decline in circulation since 1991.

In reality, the Gazette hung an albatross around its neck by producing a Sunday edition, then requiring all of its subscribers to purchase the more expensive publication. Readers balked at the idea and left en masse. It took the Gazette more than a decade to right the ship, so to speak, all the while making cuts throughout the newsroom.

Perhaps a perfect example is the paper’s Albany bureau, which just a few short years ago stood at five reporters. With the most recent cuts, the Gazette will have a paltry two writers in the Capital Region’s most populated city. Gone are bureaus in Troy and Colonie. There are even four fewer reporters covering Schenectady than there were at the turn of the century.

“Everyone in the company will feel the impact of these cuts,” wrote Editor Thomas Woodman in a memo leaked to iSaratoga this week. “But I’m confident that, as we have in the past, the newsroom will work together to maintain our traditions of high-quality journalism.”

High quality? It’s difficult to do “high quality” anything much less journalism when the publication is literally hemorrhaging jobs, just as the now diminutive Post Star has been doing. Though their staff cuts aren’t as visible as the Gazette’s, the Glens Falls paper has certainly taken a turn for the worse, albeit under a different set of circumstances.

The Post-Star’s fate was sealed in 2002, after its parent company –Howard Publications –was gobbled up by Lee Enterprises Inc. of Davenport, Iowa. At first, the acquisition didn’t seem to make much of a difference for the paper, which was often regarded as the best publication north of the tri-city region. But in 2005, the paper’s new overlord decided to buy a Pulitzer, or rather Pulitzer Inc., making Lee the fourth largest newspaper company in the nation.

Large and in charge, however, wasn’t enough for the Lee shareholders. With Lee’s revenue estimated to rise by more than $440 million to $1.14 billion after the acquisition, company officials warned that its public earnings could decline by as much as 10 cents a share. As a result, the Post Star today is a shell of the award-winning paper it was just five short years ago.

Municipal coverage in Saratoga Springs has been gutted thoroughly and is virtually non-exsistent. The bureau that featured no less than two reporters a day now has room for only one. But the most compelling proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Pick up a copy of the paper these days and it feels wafer thin; scanning the local headlines does nothing to allay this notion either.

Today, the numbers at the Post-Star continue to decline steadily as they have ever since the paper was bought by Lee. The circulation that once hovered around 33,000 in 2002 is now flirting with a dip below 31,000. For the math challenged, that’s a 6 percent decline in five short years, which is far greater than the percentage most pundits call the average for print media.

There appears to be no respite for the disease that is spreading through editorial boards across the country. Publishers are demanding more content and more news from less staffer writers and in a shorter period of time. This creates an atmosphere that is a perfect storm to gut the field of newsprint journalism. Pretty soon, the news will be more a factor of who writes a press release than the reporter gathering the facts.

Yes folks, the outlook for the media is grim. Newsrooms across the country already lack the staff to competently cover even the most basic forms of local government. Put bleakly, this guardian bastion of our American Democracy is a wounded eagle plummeting to the earth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Gazette should be ashamed of itself for showing people the door with four weeks severance. That blows.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez, you sure have a lot of inside sources, huh? For the record, the Post-Star is hobbling toward adding staff to right the ship. And the Gazette lost 18 positions total, 12 actual people, five of those positions in the newsroom, accounting for four actual people.

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was no glee at the TU over the cuts at The Gazette. Many people at the newspaper consider the Gazette staff to be friends -- as well as competitors.

12:25 PM  

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