The new news: lean, multiplatform, creative? Is less now more?

Editor & Publisher reported this today:

The San Diego Union-Tribune laid off more than 30 staffers on Thursday in what Editor Jeff Light called in an editor’s note an effort to build “a lean, creative, multi-platform team that can lead the industry.” [emphasis added]

E&P reports that this is the U-T’s seventh round of staff cuts since 2006.

In April 2008, when The Seattle Times cut 200 people, its publisher said: “Strategic and thoughtful changes to the way we do business will allow us to be positioned for the future.” [emphasis added]

When The New York Times cut 100 jobs in 2009 (after whacking 100 jobs in 2008), its executive editor said:

These latest cuts will still leave us with the largest, strongest and most ambitious editorial staff of any newsroom in the country, if not the world. … I believe we can weather these cuts without seriously compromising our commitment to coverage of the region, the country and the world. We will remain the single best news organization on earth. [emphasis added]

Why is that the MBA-driven leadership of the newspaper industry, after cutting 35,000 mostly newsroom jobs between October 2007 and June 2010, continues to insist that the future (for whom?) is bright, and news (about what?) will multimedia its way to us day after day, quantity and quality unaffected?

There are words for that kind of image-driven happy talk: Reality challenged. Misrepresentation. Delusion. Outright lies. And, of course, bullshit.

U-T‘s Light, who was named editor in February after serving as vice president of the Orange County Register‘s interactive division, is particularly optimistic and cheerful after ownership canned 30 of his staffers:

We are making changes, beginning today, to build a different kind of newsroom at the Union-Tribune, one that can thrive in an environment of efficiency, fast change and multimedia demand. [emphasis added]

Say what? This kind of vague, verbal razzle-dazzle sounds eerily like the business model for the proposed Washington, D.C., local news website TBD I wrote about here earlier this week.

In addition to hiring a few more “interactive” pros, the U-T will “add a seven-person watchdog team, business beats covering the defense industry, commercial real estate, small business and clean technology, and will increase its Chargers and Padres coverage, among other improvements.”

Sure. That’s how to beef up good local journalism revenue: Increase coverage of the local pro sports teams. So what’s the plan for coverage of government? Local? Regional? Statewide?

(Incidentally, the Beverly Hills investment and buyout firm Platinum Equity bought the Union-Tribune last year from longtime owner The Copley Press of La Jolla. Tom Gores, a billionaire ranked at number 334 on Forbes‘ March 2009 billionaires list, heads Platinum Equity.)

But here’s the kicker. Says E&P:

At the same time the layoffs are happening, the Union-Tribune is offering entry-level “junior staff writer” reporting jobs in the $35K/year range. Those reporters “will research and write news and straightforward short stories with low level of complexity, analysis and narrative,” according to an ad on [emphasis added]

Ah. Those must be be the guys who will cover government, because, you know, government stories have a “low level of complexity, analysis and narrative.” That also reveals what U-T management thinks of the intellectual capabilities of hoped-for readers, the ones who’d better show up if advertisers are going to sign on to this “environment of efficiency, fast change and multimedia demand.”

So Light’s new “multi-platform team” will “lead the industry”?

To where? And for whom? Readers? Advertisers? Or into the already deep pockets of Platinum Equity?

12 replies »

  1. TBD’s staff has grown from nothing to more than 25, is still interviewing and planning to reach 50 shortly. You have to stretch mightily to compare that to newsrooms that are cutting staff.

    • Steve: Would you tell us what these positions are, in detail? Reporters, marketing? How much experience? And how much do these jobs pay?

  2. Since it’s a work in progress and I’m leading just one team, I don’t have all the details. I wrote about the community engagement team here: I’ve hired four community hosts and a social media producer. Mobile producer still to come. Editor Erik Wemple has hired editors and reporters and is hiring more, as well as web producers. Steve Chaggaris also hiring anchors, reporters & producers for TBD TV operation. Also hiring sales staff and tech staff. We’ll list at least all the journalists on staff on our site when we launch. Have announced some of the hires on our blog: We have no marketing staff at this point. Pay ranges from entry-level to leadership salaries that are competitive enough to land key people from news organizations such as CBS, the Washington Post and City Paper.

    • Your answer is less helpful than I’d hoped. We wish you well, but the challenges Denny offers are critical. Journalism requires accomplished reporters on the street. Maybe the vagueness of your answer in places is driven by an honest “we don’t know yet” situation. But I’m a marketing guy myself (not real proud of it, all the time, but there it is) and as such I’m quite versed in talking around things. I can craft an answer that pretends to convey information when it’s doing precisely the opposite.

      If I were in your shoes, and if my organization were guilty of what Denny is poking at, and if I were presented the question that I asked earlier, I’d be looking to spin to the positive in ways that the facts wouldn’t support. In that case, I couldn’t have done much better than your answer here.

      All this said, I don’t know. TBD may prove to be the model we’ve all been hoping for, and whatever reservations I may have, that’s certainly what I’m hoping for, because the Republic is taking a horrible beating today and the looming death of journalism is a big reason why. On the other hand, TBD may be more of the same – the problem, rather than the solution.

      I can assure you that if it proves to be the solution, we’ll be able to look at staffing and budgeting decisions and see a lot of money concentrated on newsgathering and comparatively less devoted to “leadership.” Leadership is an important thing, but it’s also one of the most abused words in the English language here lately.

      So best of luck, and we’d appreciate it if you’d let us know as these details emerge.

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for engaging in a conversation with us. We at S&R are keenly interested in the resurrection and restoration of journalism at the local level. So much has been lost in communities of all sizes. We wish you well in the TBD endeavor.

    Still, we have questions — in part because what TBD proposes to do is, well, new. The notion of “collaboration” is perhaps nettlesome for some of us, like me, who’ve spent decades in local journalism. I can grasp the notion of professional editors and reporters collaborating with bloggers and other volunteers under compensation arrangements I don’t quite understand yet.

    Given that journalism, at its centuries-old heart, is an adversarial enterprise, I have qualms. TBD will rise or fall on whether it produces sufficient advertising revenue for the site’s publisher. How will TBD balance its reportorial mission with the need to attract advertisers — especially if potential advertisers are subjects of critical stories?

    Regarding the relationship with bloggers: In Karen Carmichael’s AJR piece, Erik Wemple says, in part, “why not pull in news feeds from other sources and post fans’ thoughts and experiences?” How will TBD balance, moderate, or filter what bloggers write, especially if those posts may conflict with TBD’s desire to be profitable?

    Washington, D.C., is a complicated town. It has at least 140 agencies and services provided by district government. Its fiscal 2011 budget totaled about $10.4 billion, with about 60 percent provided by local taxation. Does TBD plan on developing the expertise to closely follow how D.C. is governed? How taxes are set? How budget priorities are created and by whom? (There might even be a bit of corruption to uncover every now and then …) Will you be able to find bloggers (or hire journalists) who don’t mind sitting though hours-long, deadly boring, but critically important government agency meetings?

    I’ve always believed that local journalism ought to have as its highest priority how government treats the governed. I look forward to seeing how TBD fills that role.

    Again, we at S&R hope for the best for TBD. May it be successful — and copied elsewhere should it be.


  4. Thanks, Denny and Dr. Slammy. We appreciate the attention and respect the skepticism. I guess the best answer to your questions is that you will soon be able to watch us in action and comment on our performances, rather than our answers to questions. Given Dr. Slammy’s dismissal of my previous responses, I am inclined to leave it there now.

    So I’ll wrap up with two statements of fact and one answer that shouldn’t wait:

    Fact 1: We will have, as Slammy says we need, accomplished reporters on the street.

    Fact 2: Leadership is one of the most important factors determining the success of any startup.

    The answer: Your concern about advertising revenue has been an issue in media as long as media have depended on advertising revenue. I am confident in the integrity of the people I am working with in TBD. I am proud of our commitment to transparency (has anyone shown and told more than we have while planning a new product?). I am sure you will see that our news report will be independent and trustworthy.

    As for your other questions and comments, please watch. I think we will answer with our actions, which are, of course, TBD.

    • Steve: You wrap up my concerns, package them as a “dismissal,” and then, well, dismiss them. In fact, I raise some very specific issues, and while they’re couched in a well-informed skepticism (yours isn’t the first venture I’ve seen that aimed to reinvent our troubled journalism landscape), they’re anything but dismissive.

      Additionally, I know a bit about leadership. I’ve dealt with it and done it my whole career, and currently work in a leadership role in a thriving little financial services firm (I run marketing for them). I’ve also taught in the organizational leadership grad program at the U of Denver. All of which is to say that yes, leadership is critical, and as you say, that’s especially true for a start-up (worked in those, too).

      But that wasn’t the point. There’s a difference between leadership and “leadership.” Real leadership is vital, but these days nine out ten uses of the word I see are less about real leadership and more about happy-talk. TBD’s success will hinge, in great part, on which version of the concept you have in place. And since I don’t know much about that, again, you have my best wishes and my sincere hopes that you’re not saddled with misleadership of the sort I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with on occasion. I’ve also worked with great leadership, and if you’re in the hands of people like that, I like your chances a lot more.

      In the end, you’re on the money. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we’ll be more than a little bit interested in your success as you get the operation on its feet and into the street.

  5. In all fairness, it’s not as though a lot happens in San Diego; just earthquakes, wildfires, and military/aerospace contracts. Oh yeah, I guess there’s no risk of uncovering another Randy “Duke” Cunningham scandal with these cutbacks. But they’ll be well positioned for something or other.

    Is there any early word about what kind of success the London Times might be having with its pay-for-content scheme? Has that even launched yet?