Slaughter in the newsroom

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With very few exceptions, major newspaper companies, especially in the US, have not made investments in their newsrooms for years. The notion of developing new content and expanding real reporting to improve financial performance is out the window. And you should care, because while biased coverage may appear to be the biggest problem, it can be argued the greater concern is the scant, superficial coverage newsrooms huff-and-puff to produce with dramatically fewer feet on the beat.

Some of the big newspaper companies might pitch to their shareholders that they are investing in the newsroom but, for the most part, those are code words for crafting new systems that merely streamline and package whatever meager content they are still producing across multiple platforms.

When Gannett Co. Inc. announced in August that it was spinning off its publishing division, including its flagship, USA TODAY, from its other assets, reaction from inside the industry bordered on “what took you so long?”

After all, the Tribune Co., News Corp. and Time Warner had already been down that road. Shareholders demanded the newspaper side of those businesses be detached from the far more profitable sectors since they were hurting the overall performance of these companies. Dramatic expense cuts coupled with emerging new revenue streams were not enough to offset the declining advertising revenues of newspapers.

As a result, more and more media companies have separated their newspaper assets from other operations. That means publishing divisions must improve operating incomes by slashing costs even more 
and/or generate new approaches to growing audience and advertising in the digital arena, where revenues are still dwarfed by print-side income, even though that revenue is in a sustained, sharp decline. In Gannett’s case, it took only a few weeks before news broke of substantial layoffs, most of them within newsrooms.

As newspaper companies now scramble on their own, detached from the more profitable assets that slowed their decline, investors see the potential of a few more years of sizable profits by orchestrating even deeper personnel cuts and operational consolidations. Before traditional newspaper operations become more digital- than print-centric, there are still healthy margins to return to investors. The investment, however, focuses on cutting staff and consolidating operations; rarely are investments made in developing news-driven products.

New business model neglects content

In the August edition of Trends Monthly, we summarized the trend line this way:

It’s a simple formula: Buy a single newspaper or newspaper group and absorb it into an existing corporate structure. That means most customer service, national sales, marketing and IT support as well as national and international news content are delegated to a centralized, corporate-managed location.

Once that process is complete, a significant number of locally-based jobs are eliminated, so costs go down and margins go up. Content development is replaced with assembly-line-produced national news and advertising content, augmented by an ever-shrinking local news report.

Most of the big chains now have what are referred to as design or production centers, where the majority of non-local news — international, national, political, entertainment, business, etc. — is produced. The decisions on which stories and photographs to run and from what source (such as The Associated Press or Reuters), how to edit them and how to prioritize their importance are made by a universal desk, in many cases by just one or two editors. An assembly line-like production operation then writes the headlines and photo captions, designs the pages and sends them off to dozens of sister newspapers across the country.

Ever wonder why so much of your local newspaper looks and reads the same as your sister’s or brother’s five states away? Now you know.

On paper, this makes financial sense. Forming corporate-run operational centers to handle what are, in effect, national content priorities — from news coverage to national advertising sales to universal business function needs — allows the stripped down, streamlined local operation to focus on top-shelf local news, advertising and community outreach. That’s the theory.

But as the industry closes in on a decade of dramatic staff cuts, most of which came from newsrooms, it still struggles to define its digital identity. Its traditional role as watchdog is deteriorating far more rapidly than is its ability to effectively adapt to the digital world.

Spreadsheet journalism on the rise

Newsrooms, the lowest common denominator in this trend line, having been forced to decimate their staffing ranks, are now more focused on growing audience by dipping into a digital toolbox to find the right mix of devices and techniques to boost critical metrics than they are on covering news and issues with tenacity, fortitude and resilience.

With alarming frequency, reporters are being judged by how many tweets and Facebook postings they make, how many instant videos they produce, how many two-sentence updates they post and, ultimately, how these and other metrics contribute to the newspaper’s overall audience share. This type of journalism is akin to sales representatives being judged by how many cold calls they make and how many potential clients they take to lunch.

The logic to this emerging set of standards for reporters is this: If the audience eventually grows large enough, there will be money to reinvest in genuine content development.

Not likely. At least not based on the current trend.

Grim statistics don’t lie

Estimates by the Pew Center, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the National Newspaper Association, putting the loss of newsroom staffing within the last decade at somewhere between 40 and 50 percent, are likely conservative. It is difficult to accurately measure the loss of reporting jobs because those positions were among the last to be cut and have since morphed into multifunction positions that are as much clerical- and technical-based as they are reporting-based. Middle management editing ranks, copy editors, page designers/artists, photographers and specialty beat writers (entertainment and food critics, for example) were among the first to face the ax.

But during this decade-long transition from a print-centric to a digital-centric newsroom, there’s another underlying trend line that tells a significant story by itself: If you measure news by the ton, the state of long-form, in-depth journalism is the biggest loser, particularly in the US.

Last year, The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University reported that newsprint usage has declined by over 60 percent since 1999, when usage peaked, and continues to drop at a rapid rate. The amount of space allocated for news is determined by the amount of advertising in the newspaper on any given day. Since that advertising base has declined by roughly a half or more since its peak, the space for news on any given day is at historic lows. So while 40 million people read a newspaper each day in the US, the size of that newspaper is dramatically smaller than it once was.

What a smaller paper means

The only real growth in media-related job sectors is in the digital arenas. Many of those positions are driven by a skills base more suited to aggregating and delivering content across a variety of platforms than to basic journalism. And as we reported in the August Trends Monthly: “With fewer feet on the beat, editors reach for reader-submitted content and use social media to drive traffic to websites where depth has been replaced with fragments of news and information produced at a central location that is far removed — physically and in spirit — from the communities they’re supposed to be covering.”

While journalism navigates these troubling times en route to a safe haven in the digital world, there are some traditions being left behind that won’t be easily replaced, particularly for the mid- and small-size operations that make up so much of the media landscape.

For example, middle-management editing ranks are sharply depleted. These editors were the guideposts, the watchdogs who assured depth, accuracy, impact and focus. Today, the digital content that still goes through editors amounts to news fragments spiced up with all-important keywords that resonate in social media and other digital platforms.

The news bureau — satellite locations where journalists reported on communities or institutions from the scene — is becoming rare, even in Washington, D.C., state capitals and, for the larger papers and news organizations, in strategic global locations. Of course, digitally equipped journalists can parachute in to cover news from any location at any time. But there is no substitute for coordinating, not just producing, coverage from the location journalists are living and working in.

Specialty beat reporters — from film critics to health care experts and from local columnists to education writers — were among the first to either be laid off or converted to general assignment reporters. The loss of expertise is sorely missed all across the media landscape, particularly at the community newspaper level where reporter—heads bowed over their smart phones as they send off tweets—are missing larger stories and issues that can only be reported through persistence. And that requires time.

The concept of “owning a beat’ is also being challenged. Traditionally, newspapers have set the agenda by identifying and pursuing issues that broadcast and other media pick up on. The ability to stay with a story until it becomes a center-stage priority is deeply diminished in today’s media. The question, “Who’s minding the story?” in communities and governments across the globe is of growing concern.

Not all digital journalism is bad

These troubling trend lines are somewhat offset by positive signs on digital fronts — signs that serious journalism is taking place alongside the template approaches to growing audience for the sheer sake of having an audience base to bulk sell to national and local advertisers. As we reported in the Summer 2014 Trends Journal:

“On the positive side, the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance of Americans has surged interest once again in the watchdog role the media plays. Whether you agree or disagree with Snowden’s actions, those actions have recharged the debate over access to data, privacy issues and new thinking about how to mine data online for public good. We expect we’ll see more young journalists at all levels endeavoring down these paths.”

There is a new generation of digital journalist that is becoming quite adept at mining data and information in support of traditional watchdog journalism. With increasing frequency, smaller digital-based operations are being created to provide coverage of specific issues or topics within a community. These operations focus on coverage gaps created by local newspapers that no longer have the resources to provide that kind of depth of coverage.

Perhaps the most positive sign is that newspapers still have a sizable audience they can transition to digital platforms. But the content strategies evolving online and across digital platforms is missing most of the core journalistic values that helped shape coverage for generations. The new model chases metrics ahead of journalistic values and priorities. And that is forcing a new definition for what constitutes depth and value in coverage.

Since newspapers have long set the agenda for coverage that other media chased and, for all practical purposes, aggregated, soon we’ll be wondering what in-depth content is left to repurpose.

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