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Newsroom layoffs: Who should be the last to go? 2/17/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Layoffs.

With virtually every newspaper now cutting staff, Alan Mutter logically suggests that reducing the number of editors who check and clear stories is a good place to start. But there’s also the question of who should be cut, so that papers are left with the right talent.

Let me suggest a pecking-order for layoffs. In the first round, newspapers can actually strengthen themselves by shedding enforcers of the toxic, non-competitive Old Media culture. These are journalists who view newspapers as a public service, not a business, and view their readers as citizens who must be led, not customers whose needs must be met. The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Steiger was a likely victim of such a layoff. Immediately upon departure, he took a job at ProPublica, where he spends his days building a “Journalassic Park” to bring fully-funded investigative reporting back from extinction. Good luck with that.

In the final rounds of layoffs, those with three never particularly valued skills must be retained: 1) Those who have a knack for understanding what readers want and how to appeal to them through story selection and headlines; 2) Those whose unique writing style, attitude, and/or embedded opinions create a circulation-boosting bond with their readers; and 3) Those whose energy and personable demeanor allow them to penetrate hyperlocal communities and retrieve compelling content. Internet news content is getting better and better, so newsrooms better shrink smart. Those who simply shrug and say “Honey, I shrunk the newsroom,” will find they also shrunk the share price.


1. Brian Cubbison - 2/18/08

I agree, for the most part, but I’d like to mention that for most of the nation’s history, we did not look to Wall Street to provide the news, or to choose who would provide the news. Early on, it was cranks and pamphleteers, a local printer who wanted to keep his press busy, political parties, then a rich local family, or egotistical media barons. The Wall Street 20 percent model is not necessarily the natural order. Still, the narrative at places like the Los Angeles Times seems to be about the martyrs vs. the cutters. But that kind of brinksmanship doesn’t serve the journalism well. The assumption is that the newspaper will keep doing what it’s always done, but with a big hole in its side, then another big hole, and another. Instead the newsroom should anticipate, and create a newspaper that can survive in this world.

2. Steve Boriss - 2/18/08

Brian, Right. Now, let’s go even further back in history, before even “early on,” back to the days before the printing press, when news was spread by word of mouth. Back then, one did not even need access to a printing press to contribute to news. One could simply be a gossip, a well-respected citizen, an engaging personality, an unusually insightful person, or an opinion leader. Even rulers had to send out singing minstrels with colorful garb to get their fair share of attention. Now that everyone has access to the Internet, just as everyone had a voice to spread news by word of mouth, how will today’s news outlets compete with that? This will be quite a challenge and seems to call for a radically different business model.

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