Big Layoffs At Recently Sold San Diego Union-Tribune: The Immediate Future Of American Newspapers?
Today is a sad day here in San Diego, California. Earlier this week, the local daily newspaper (where I worked for 8 years), The San Diego Union-Tribune, formally changed hands from being owned for decades by the now defunct Copley family newspaper chain, which sold the paper in March. The newspaper carried a photo of the Copley company’s huge “Ring of Truth” Copley logo bell being unceremoniously carted away — a symbol of a change in ownership.
Was it a harbinger of more? Because yesterday the truth hit San Diego — the working journalist community, the many former members of the newspapers who retired normally, those who retired before they could be laid off, those laid off before the sale, those lucky enough to get limited buyouts before the sale, and the city’s many citizens who remark about how their local paper seemingly gets smaller each day — like a metal bell slammed into its face. On Monday the paper formally changed hands. By yesterday it was known that 192 staffers were being given the boot.
The San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday said it is eliminating 192 positions at the newspaper across all departments. The staff reduction comes after the sale of the paper to Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity Partners was finalized Monday.
The website, set up in competition with the UT online, gives some names of laid-off staffers, then William Yelles goes on:
Positions were eliminated across the company including advertising. Seven janitors were let go, sources said.
The moves come after employees of the paper were asked last week to sign documents from Platinum informing them that if they continued in their roles, they might be laid off at any time.
Positions are being eliminated effective July 6. Staffers are being given 60 days notice, the minimum California requirement when a company terminates more than 50 employees at once.
The newspaper industry nationwide is under increasing financial pressure due to the current economic downturn and eroding advertising fortunes as readers increasingly turn from print to the Web.
Speculation as to the likelihood of layoffs have been rampant since La Jolla-based Copley Press announced the sale of the paper to Platinum on March 18. Terms were not disclosed.
Go to the link to read it all.
San Diego City Beat ran this earlier post.
This had not been a surprise to me – -but the swiftness with which the new owners acted was breathtaking. From their standpoint: they had a business set up for a clearly-bygone pre-Internet, pre-Great Recession era in terms of the profitability and it was time to streamline it. Meanwhile, what happened at the UT raises some local questions and industry ones (again). For instance:
1. Now the question is what happens next. What’s striking here is how swiftly the new owners acted to lay people off, suggesting that a “hit” list probably had been ready for some time. Are there other contingency plans that’ll morph into reality just as swiftly?
2. Since the sale was announced, when I’ve talked to friends here and around the country, I have consistently told them (as recently as twice yesterday morning) that I saw three scenarios:
a) there were to be swift and brutal staff reductions soon after taking over to pare the property so it would either make money or stop financially bleeding so that eventually when things turned around it could be sold
b) there would be all of the above but the goal would be to sell the Mission Valley real estate (less likely but likely…but that nice building sits on a spot where you can see a hotel or office building)
c) there would be all of the previous two and the paper would be online only (very unlikely in the still-promising San Diego market).
3. If a company is looking for the bottom line, it has no choice but to reduce expenses — and that means ending jobs people thought they would have until retirement. This has been telegraphed in the new company’s statements in the UT on the day of the formal take-over.
4. More than ever, there is now a “glut” on the market for journalists and writers as the industry begins to reshape online and offline. Not only is the news hole itself shrinking in today’s American print journalism, but in many cases it is vanishing as papers close. And, in other cases, the existing news hole is vanishing for certain types of news.
OurBlook has an excellent long piece onlineby Gerry Storch on the future of journalism. It’s worth looking at some of the categories it explores and offering a few excerpts. This is comprehensive and needs to be read IN FULL so go to the link to read it all.
The Current State of Newspapers:
In recent months … as erstwhile titans like the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have vaporized, and others like the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times teeter in bankruptcy, and still others like the Detroit News and Free Press resort to desperate new measures such as curtailing home delivery to just a few days a week … a rough consensus has emerged.
And that is … except for the “Big Four” national players, metro newspapers will not survive unless they 1) convert out of print and totally into the Internet on weekdays, saving a big print edition for the weekend, 2) confine themselves to local and regional news and, most importantly, 3) charge for it online.
Astonishingly, despite the sickening financial slide in the industry, very few charge for their web site product, the most notable exception being the Wall Street Journal, which has a hybrid system (pay for premium content). With the income from online advertising so paltry for papers as to be meaningless, the effect has been to give it away for free even as they swirl down the drain.
The Future of Newspapers.
Papers are being overwhelmed by enormous newsprint, production and delivery costs … and a huge amount of staffing associated with them. All no longer needed, at least during the week. If a weekend print edition remains viable, and in most cities it does as it can still attract a lot of ads, that would continue.
The Christian Science Monitor has become the pioneer for this change. In March, it eliminated its weekday print editions but its weekender continues.
“While we won’t initially save significant money by ending our daily print publication (costs of printing, distribution, etc. are halved, but subscription revenues fall as well, making the move a wash in the first year), we are able to free most of our editors, reporters, photographers, and designers to continuously update our web site, CSMonitor.com. That should bring us more readers,” editor John Yemma told OurBlook. “Our aim is that over the next five years, our online readership will grow fivefold … from 5 million page-views at present to 25 million … and that that will provide the revenue to sustain our operations.”
Newspapers can still “deliver” their product … instead of being flipped from a speeding pickup truck at 4 a.m. on or near a driveway, its content can be delivered electronically to a customer’s computer or to a portable wireless electronic reading device such as Amazon’s Kindle.
Carve out a niche that makes the paper’s web site dominant, irreplaceable and one of a kind.
“I would like to offer a two-word solution to the financial woes of our ink-stained friends: ‘local news,’ ” says business consultant Jonathan Stark, who has consulted for a number of U.S. papers. “Newspapers have real roots in the communities they serve. They have history, tradition and personal relationships. In some cases, they are a source of local pride. If newspapers are willing to let go of their print-based history, invest in their writers, embrace technology and dedicate themselves to being THE source for local news, they will have readers for as long as people can read.”
Who else can do it better?
Go to the link above to find out.
How much to charge? The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, perhaps the only sizable metro paper to charge for its web site, makes readers pay $4.95 a month. Since that’s about 16 cents a day, we’d say it’s far too low. We’d make it a nice round number, easy to remember … $20 a month. That hopefully would bring in a substantial amount of revenue. But charge what you need to charge to survive … in this sense, a newspaper will become more like a newsletter with a narrow scope but an audience willing to support it. Aren’t many newsletters profitable?
Subscription is one way, and the other way being widely discussed is micropayments. Readers would establish a credit account and be charged a token amount, perhaps a few pennies, for each article they click on. That amount would have to be tinkered with to make sure enough revenue comes in.
Papers will almost have to turn to this as a new source of money as hopes by some in the profession for a government bailout for newspapers seem neither feasible nor desirable.
Read the ENTIRE piece online.
ALSO OF NOTE:
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus has an article in CJR titled: Newspaper Narcissism: Our pursuit of glory led us away from readers. Once again, it’s long and needs to be read in full. Here are few excerpts that deal with the issues raised in this post:
American journalism is in trouble, and the problem is not just financial. My profession is in distress because for more than a decade it has been chasing the false idols of fame and fortune. While engaged in those pursuits, it forgot its readers and the need to produce a commercial product that appealed to its mass audience, which in turn drew advertisers and thus paid for it all. While most corporate owners were seeking increased earnings, higher stock prices, and bigger salaries, editors and reporters focused more on winning prizes or making television appearances.
Some long-term reporting projects have been undertaken, and multiple-part series published, simply because they might win prizes. Over the past ten years, The Washington Post has won nineteen Pulitzer Prizes. But over that same period, we lost more than 120,000 readers. Why? My answer, unpopular among my colleagues, is that while many of these longer efforts were worthwhile, they took up space and resources that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on, and that may have directly affected their lives. Readers have limited time to spend on newspapers. The number has been twenty-five minutes, on average, for more than thirty years. In short, we have left behind our readers in our chase after glory.
One of my basic concerns is that American journalism has turned away from its own hard-won expertise, and at the very time when readers are looking to us to explain the context of what is happening and what will happen next.
Most newspapers and the broadcast media have cut the number of reporters on beats. Meanwhile, young reporters are increasingly shifted from beat to beat, never having enough time to master complex subjects such as health care, public education, or environmental policies. As a result, more of their stories are based not on reportorial expertise, but on pronouncements by government sources or their critics.
Reporters are shifted around in part because of decreasing resources, and in part because within the profession, reporters are encouraged to become editors, editors to become publishers, and publishers of small papers pushed to manage bigger ones. This results in less expertise at the most important level—where reporters gather information…Meanwhile, we have turned into a public-relations society.
Like other industries caught up in today’s economic downturn, newspapers, which just a few years ago were rapidly expanding, have to reduce expenses, including staff. We also should look for other ways to use the materials we already collect and produce. The Post and other publications have taken first steps in joint ventures with network television news. I believe we will see a time when a major newspaper and a major television network jointly produce a daily news show.
But when it comes to editorial content, meaningful news about government, politics, and foreign policy is only one of the saleable elements. Good newspapers have to go back to delivering a daily product that our mass audiences want, and which provides to advertisers a unique means to reach consumers. Like supermarkets, newspapers must deliver quality in all departments.
There is a lot more so go to the link and read it all.