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December 04, 2008

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I was living in Louisville and attending high school when the Bingham family sold the Courier-Journal to Gannett. It bothered me immensely at the time because I was an avid newspaper reader even as a teenager, often clipping out and keeping opinion pieces that seemed insightful at the time. The real damage from the Gannett sale wasn't visible for years, but the cancellation of the afternoon Louisville Times in 1987 did set the tone for the new newspaper era to come. I have lived in four states since leaving Kentucky and upon my relocation to each one, I would subscribe to a local paper to learn the pulse of my new home. I never gave up those subscriptions until the Arizona Republic. Like before, I subscribed to the local paper when I moved to Arizona. Despite being a Gannett publication, I was pleasantly surprised when I actually found a few items I enjoyed reading, such as your columns. The restructuring that encouraged your departure for Seattle also encouraged my departure from subscribing. I’ve lived here long enough now that I know the pulse of Arizona and I don't need to be reminded daily about how dumb the average Arizonian is or how their narrow-minded views can easily be manipulated by the corporate misinformation machine. But as a newspaper insider, you articulate the whys very well. However, I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment of USA Today. I find that tissue at my doorstep in most hotels when I travel for work. I even sometimes read a few articles to kill time before breakfast. But I always feel ripped off when I read the short same page article without “story jumps”. Where is the rest of this story? There has to be more to this issue than just these few paragraphs. Alas, that is all Gannett has deemed appropriate to share with me, despite my ability to read above the third grade level. You posted an earlier blog challenging parents to get their children to read newspapers. The problem for me is, I care about my children’s future too much to hold them to such low standards as Gannett’s.

I was at a Cox paper as a cub reporter in the early 90s. The general attitude back then was a story would jump as many times as needed if the copy justified running a story that long.

As someone who just went through the Gannett layoffs, I can tell you that you missed the mark this time. Normally you're spot on and I agree with you a lot. But here in Great Falls, MT at the Tribune, the newsroom is the only department not really hurt by the layoffs... this round or the last one. We instead cut the people making ads and selling advertisements. I know it's of paramount importance to have quality journalism, but if the newspaper doesn't make money, isn't it a moot point?

Nice job! And thanks for the plug!

Network TV has stopped producing quality programs and substituted 'reality' programs. This trend drives away thoughtful watchers and pleases your duhs and ignos who would watch a riot for fun. Cable TV took over programming reigns. They may look like the same industry, but they are not in some fundamental ways. The real journalism-equivalent has moved to the internet.

The old Hollywood Studio system went through a similar transition. Now the Studios are merely distribution networks and even the small, independent studios that produce all the films are producing mostly crap. The audience is large and stupid.

Newspapers are not the first and will not be the last to face this transition: an intellectual elite (I use the term proudly) develop an interest in something advanced and worthwhile, something not everyone can appreciate. An industry develops around it and can sustain itself because those who enjoy it are willing to pay relatively large sums for it.

As others take notice of this new thing, they try to join in. The market for it booms and canny business types begin to cut costs to make it available to more people - not because they want more people to enjoy it, but because it will generate more profits. as the industry gradually descends to the lowest common denominator that maximizes profits, the original fans are forced to move on because it is now a tourist-trap shadow of its former self, preserving some of the forms but none of the real content of the medium.

It's sad to reflect on the demise of the great old newspapers, but todays Gannet-ized rags are not any longer the object you miss.

The real journalists who are left can move to the few remaining papers with integrity, they can move into the blogosphere (which needs to improve its methods of compensation) and they can begin to coinsider new models of presenting that which the Constitution requires.

Yet another part of your Great Disruption.

Gannett's #1 priority is keeping expenses in line with revenue to ensure a 20 percent margin (give or take 10 percent). Anyone think these cuts will help Gannett increase revenue?

Meh,
For Chrissakes, Gannett laid off some ten percent of its workforce.
Get over it, there isn't some grand loss of nobility because they were the first newspaper not to allow a story to jump more than once.
The U.S. just went through the largest loss of employment in 34 years; why in the world did you or anyone else think the newspapers would be insulated from this?

Having worked as a reporter and columnist for both the family-owned Columbus Dispatch and, for 10 years, The Arizona Republic in the Pulliam days before Gannett, just want to say thanks for the insightful overview. Much of what you say certainly applies to Tribune properties as well.

I've lived in Connecticut for the past six years and have been a subscriber to the Hartford Courant. I pick up the paper every morning and wonder why I'm wasting my money on a redesigned rag filled with research-driven lists, graphics and items as well as CelebCult garbage produced by an ever-shrinking staff - and displaying very little old-fashioned journalism.

You mentioned The Republic ignoring central Phoenix - like nothing ever happens between Van Buren and Dunlap. The Courant doesn't even cover northwest CT even though it's less than 25 miles from Broad Street.

The Republican-American in Waterbury, for which I write a weekly column on a freelance basis, truly tackles news in the area in a competitive manner, giving stories what they're worth. The Courant, meanwhile, in the areas that it does actually cover, relies on two- and three-paragraph items that are nothing more than transcribed press releases.

As someone who has spent a career in the news biz, and spilled a lot of blood at 120 E. Van Buren in Phoenix, I'm POed, sad and fearful of the longterm impact of corporate greed and the dumbing down of newspapers ( even though I've always worked in the "toy department" of features).

This is the first time reading your blog. But as a former Gannetoid, I must say this is the most dead-on, accurate and wise summary of that horrible Gannett culture I have ever read. Gannett has always been an odd - schizoid - company - paying lip service to high-minded journalism, but in fact producing absolute shit! Arrogantly, too, I might add. The hostility you mention that management feels toward its journalists and readers is so true. I hate to see good journalists out of work, but I have no pity for the company or the journalistic model they have unleashed.

First time I've seen your blog, Jon. Kudos. However, there's a contradiction I take issue with, and I actually already shot an email to Jim Hopkins about it. To wit:

"The paper has been quietly cutting staff for two years, and the losses have been heavily centered on the most experienced journalists. In other words, the institutional knowledge and highest journalistic skills have been slashed."

" ... for years the old city-desk crew from Rochester, N.Y., was a force as its members rose in stature, but with a few exceptions, never grew in worldview."

That "old city-desk crew," I assume was made up of "the most experienced journalists." So which is it? Are newspapers cutting veteran journalists to the detriment of the profession, or are they clearing out some of the folks that stand in the way of progress?

I know it's not a black-and-white issue, and the answer is several shades of grey, but I find myself - as a young journalist - being implicitly regarded as unworthy or unable to carry the jockstraps of my predecessors the more I read about the implosion of the industry.

I wholeheartedly respect and admire the people who have been doing this 20 years longer than I have. I seek their input, advice and criticism as much as possible. And I ignore them more than a few times a day as they grumble about how the Internet is the root of all evil and the good old days when it was perfectly acceptable to spend an hour copy editing a 10-inch story.

Do I wish I'd been around in the days of hot type? Sometimes, yeah. I think it would have been a blast to bend the rules and have a whiskey lunch with a source in the police department. But I'm pragmatic enough to know that isn't the way it is now, and all the things that worked then are not necessarily the things that work now.

I still believe in good storytelling, brutal honesty and holding people accountable. I don't believe you need 15 copy editors a night for 15 local stories.

The industry was very fat for a long time, and many people got used to that. And now when it must run leaner than ever (and I'm not saying that's a good thing, only being objective about the situation at hand) many of those same people are impediments, despite their decades of experience.

This is not a blanket indictment of everyone older than I am. There are many exceptions to that rule. But to rail about the demise of "most experienced journalists" without also conceding there was more than a little bit of deadwood to cut is slightly disingenuous and a bit dismissive of the many positives younger journalists bring to the table.

This is spot-on analysis. Well done.

The cutting at some papers has been continuous. Those papers are the ones that show up high on the profit sheet. Compare newsroom payrolls or FTE counts in 1999 with 2009 and the cuts revealed will be huge. This wouldn't show at the big metros or very small, but it is across the board

This piece could have been written twenty-five or thirty years ago. Same old, same old navel-gazing sanctimony. It's why people hate journalists -- and a major reason they don't read newspapers.

The people who are criticizing this piece are missing the point -- perhaps willingly.

The criticisms are valid. Saying "NO ONE" would read jumps; concentrating simply on a pretty page; focusing on lists to the point we have lead stories with a "headline" of "10 reasons to watch 30 Rock", with (of course) the numeral 10 blown up to five times the size of the rest of the display type -- all of these things are signs of a newspaper company that has lost its mind.

For the life of me, I don't understand why people bend over backward to defend these components of the design-based approach. Perhaps they don't have enough confidence in their reading, editing, and writing abilities. Perhaps they've been brainwashed by the chanters. Perhaps they have simply lost the will to resist these mandates; after all, it's easier simply to give in to the mindlessness than it is to stay the course.

Also, I had to cringe at the usual post saying: "Young journalists are the future!" Well, duh. But what kind of future will they be inheriting if someone doesn't try to reverse the madness before it's too late (if it isn't already)?

"I don't believe you need 15 copy editors a night for 15 local stories." Well, no. But there's also wire copy. And those alleged "non-deadline" stories? As long as non-editors are allowed either to delay sending these articles simply to show they can, or non-journalist designers are allowed to spend half a shift on an Entertainment cover featuring the latest half-baked Hollywood release, then yes -- you do need 15 copy editors a night.

But the defenses of "Rah, rah -- design rules!" really need to stop. Newspapers don't have the resources for this nonsense. They probably never had them. If there's anything newspapers don't need, it's non-editing designers and AMEs of presentation.

While Gannett, like all newspapers, failed to change as the industry met the digital era, I think you gravely underplay forces outside their control which have contributed mightily to their problems. In addition, you can't equate national dailies with metro papers in part because the audience, advertising base and business models are so different. Finally, your post has a bitterness about it which undercuts your message.

Wenalway: How often does anyone ask those young journalists - the ones who have the biggest stake in securing a future for the industry - if they have any ideas on how to "reverse the madness"? That was my entire point in copying the second passage I quoted from Jon's post.

Who is going to be more innovative, take more risks and invest more blood, sweat and tears in any given situation: the guy who's got to survive in it for the next 30 years, or the guy who's got to survive in it for the next five? And then ask yourself which of those two guys is more likely to be in charge of the situation.

Again, I'm not talking in absolutes, not am I saying I'm the savior of anything. But my peers and I bang our heads against the wall more often than you'd think as we watch those "experienced" journalists keep doing the same things that helped get all of us into this mess while we bust our butts hoping there will be a few bread crumbs left over if things go belly up.

You speak of "inheriting the future." Who cares more about an inheritance: the deceased or the inheritors?

I'd rather not get into another "young journos vs. the world" discussion here, but I don't see how saying "We need less editing" or "We need to focus more on what we young journos want" is a solution in itself.

I see your point about the people who have only a few years left in the industry not being that concerned. But I think I'd be far more apt to listen to other people if they had something to offer other than: "Cut copy editors. Let raw copy go online 5 minutes after it's written." I've seen the results of that plan, and they are horrendous.

And while we're talking about spending "an hour editing a 10-inch article" -- that might not be necessary if the people being paid to be professional writers could write. I have long been astonished at how bad the copy could be. That's one of the points of this article -- instead of working with reporters to improve the writing and story-telling, editors were focused on lists and doodads. That's a huge problem. I tend to think young journos are not going to want to change these things; they prefer the current laissez-faire system of lax editing and few standards.

Don't like that conclusion? I offer this challenge: If you have access to the raw, unedited copy being submitted, take an objective look at it for a few days. Then report back.

I prefer the middle ground between your two extremes: why not post something after it's been read by an editor-type - line editor, city editor, senior editor, whatever title your particular paper uses - and let a copy editor "polish" it after it goes up?

I'd say that process could apply to about 80 percent of the copy that gets posted to the average news site every day. The other 20 percent would be investigative stories, in-depth pieces, stuff that runs more than 15 inches, etc., that certainly should get a close read or two before going up. I'm not saying a line editor is comparable to a copy editor, but most line editors are competent enough to make sure there are no f-bombs in the story and that it doesn't call the mayor a whore. So we're inbounds ethically and legally.

In the 10 minutes between when it appears and a copy editor can tackle it, the average story may get two dozen views, tops, so you're not ruining your audience-wide reputation. And quite frankly, I think online readers are willing to sacrifice the ultimate polish on the story that has consistent AP style to get it a half hour earlier than they otherwise would have.

The name of the game on the Internet is speed. And if that's now a part of the equation, then accommodations need to be made in the other principles we live by. In an ideal world, the only thing that would go on the Web would be perfectly edited stories and they'd go up five minutes after they were written. But neither of those things happens anyway, so the compromise has to be somewhere in between.

I started my career as a copy editor and have a reverence for sharp writing and precise editing. But I also know what my peers and I - the first generation of adults raised on Internet journalism - like out of online news, and it doesn't kill me if a story has numerals for numbers under 10 instead of words. It does kill me when my preferred news site is a half hour behind all the others in posting a story. That's when I find a new preferred site.

I was with you until that last graf, which turned into more banner-waving for how young journos are the only ones who understand the Internet.

The problem with your philosophy is the rampant cutting of staff. What likely will happen is poor copy will be posted online and then won't be improved.

Also, I still refuse to believe the sole problem is "too much editing." We have small armies of people obsessing about hairline rules in the print edition. Cut those people first. Then we can worry about having too many editors.

Tell you what, I'm more with the kid than the old pro on this one. But there are valid points in both.
Here's the problem, things like classified advertising allowed us to prop up an industry that was based more on in-the-trenches reporting than well-polished council stories.
Should big CP stories get extra treatment and have a couple pairs of eyes look through and rework them? Of course. But I worked at the Republic's Mesa bureau at the inception of the zoned insert and couldn't believe the waste. We'd have four people gathering news, four editors, two "team leaders," and a whole group of higher-ups who'd float in and out. Who's finding out what's going on?
I don't read the paper very often now. Usually Sunday. During the week, I get my stuff off the Web and it's important the stories are fresh.
But realize (and it's odd to be a mediator), this thing isn't a one-way street. Just like auto's Big Three have come crashing because management made horrible decisions and workers made outrageous demands, newspapers have cut their own throats from both sides.
Papers became too big, losing their touch with individual communities, all in the name of being "advertiser-friendly."
And copy editors/presentation AMEs/lazy reporters (heck, we had a photographer who used to count the 30-minute morning meeting as his "A.M. assignment") have lost the phrase "news gatherer" from their job description.
Obviously, people are bitter. It was destined that the job market (like the Phoenix housing industry) would come back to Earth. Believe it or not, when you take money and job security away from people, they get angry.
But this whole model needs to be blown up and reinvented. Local newspapers need to be owned by local entities, who understand what projects are worthy of a few extra bucks.
And people need to again become revered for their community involvement, story-telling ability and understanding of the community they serve. Newspapers are supposed to be watchdogs and a voice for the people they serve, not the trickle-down bulletin board of a Gatehouse meeting in Fairport, N.Y.
Let's put it this way, people love Applebee's. But not the Applebee's in Tempe. Applebee's anywhere. They feel an attachment to Nello's in Tempe and when they're there, they'll go out of their way to stop in and grab a spinach pie (can I have chicken on that?). If you got any of that reference, you nodded and smiled and it made you feel more involved in the discussion.
When we as newspapers became Applebee's, and the products felt like they were contrived elsewhere, we lost our link. The only way to get it back is simple — get in the community, ask for input and show that we're trying to become an important part of our community's daily life.
Bad copy will hurt our credibility. So will bad packaging to an extent. But I'd rather err on the side of having too much info than worry about whether an en dash or em dash is appropriate.

I'm not sure how the argument has shifted to "getting more info" vs. "editing," and "old pro" sounds like a Jedi mind trick, but I am all for more reporters getting more info.

The problem, though, is justifying the staff levels. Also, there are too many reporters whose "method" of gathering information is to go into the recent story archives, copy a bunch of info, rewrite it slightly, and then get some government toadie to offer up a new quote. Lazy.

Are there too many levels of bureaucracy? Of course. The AME of presentation who reads and edits no copy is the most worthless person in the newsroom today. Fire them. Now.

But I fail to see how copy editors are the problem. "Copy editor"/designers -- yes. Copy editors? No.

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