Paper losses

What follows began as a comment I meant to post on this Scene blog post. It growed, and I decided instead to send a rough version to Scene Editor Jim Ridley with the idea of maybe making it a post unto itself on the news blog, Pith in the Wind. But it growed some more, and it may have become something more interesting to a few of my fellow refugees from journalism than to the rest of the world. So I’m posting it on my long-dormant Old News blog just to put it out somewhere. If you care about the issues it raises, then you’re probably, like me, a fan of the engaged, hyper-local, community-focused journalism of the old coots who inspired me to create this blog. Have a look around. — Tom

The Tennessean is bleeding the patient once again. This time, as in 2007, employees will be offered buyouts to get them off the payroll. Leaving one’s job – and, probably, the journalism trade itself – may be marginally more palatable with a buyout than through a layoff of the sort 1100 Broadway’s people endured in June 2011July 2009, and August 2008. Whatever form “workforce reduction” takes, there is plenty of pain to go around. Almost all my old friends are gone from the paper, where I worked in the early 1990s, but I wish only the best to those stepping off the crazy train at this stop.

We don’t know yet how many of the 25 job eliminations will come from newsroom staff. But much of the chatter among current and former journos is about the irony of this announcement, coming as it does on the heels of Tennessean parent Gannett’s announcement that all of its newspaper content will be going behind a paywall. With a news product approaching final entropy after two decades of sporadic newsroom purges that have run off scores of experienced, talented writers and editors, this once-great newspaper is already down to a skeleton crew of burned-out newsroom “information center” personnel. Does Gannett really think folks will pay to read their work?

Nashville readers have already been sending The Tennessean a pocketbook message for years: “You’re not worth my time or money.” The paper’s weekday circulation peaked at 187,400 in 1998, when it absorbed the subscriber base of the Nashville Banner upon the afternoon paper’s demise. In the ensuing decade, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, daily circ shrank back below where it was at the time of the Banner deal, hitting 150,000 in 2008. As of September 30, 2011, The Tennessean‘s weekday circulation stood at 120,805. Sunday circ was 224,440 and has grown slightly in recent years.

The population of greater Nashville grew by more than 20 percent between 1998 and 2011. The Tennessean not only did not gain readers as the market expanded; it shed 35 percent of its daily rate base. By way of comparison, the circulation death-spiral that finally did in the Banner after 122 years ended with a 34 percent shrinkage between 1991 and the bitter end in 1998.

Maybe the paywall and stable Sunday sales will save The Tennessean. The paywall trend is certainly spreading – The Los Angeles Times has just announced its new plan to charge for content. The New York Times reported last week in an annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it sold about 390,000 digital subscriptions between the launch of its paywall in April 2011 and the end of the year. The Gray Lady’s success has emboldened others, including Gannett, as the entire newspaper industry tries to cope with print subscription declines brought on by the rise of online news. But let’s keep that sales number in perspective. At $15 to $35 per monthly subscription, the Times apparently made between $6 million and $14 million on its new program, a tiny fraction of its $2.3 billion in overall 2011 revenue.

And that was for The New York Effin’ Times, one of the world’s greatest news organizations, even in this dark era for the news biz. I used to do a fair amount of stringing for the NYT, grunt reporting that often involved working at the direction of reporters like David Kirkpatrick, Gus Niebuhr and the late Robin Toner. Whether I was filing to a beat reporter or an editor, every single Times journalist I ever encountered impressed me as world-class.

When I phoned the national desk from a Buckhead bar after news of the Olympic bombing flashed on the TV screens in the early hours of July 27, 1996, the copy editor who answered immediately knew exactly how I could help with coverage. He told me no reporters were able to get near the downtown Atlanta hospital where most of the victims had been taken. But some walking wounded, he said, were being triaged to a hospital in the north of town, near me. Go there and get quotes from them after they are released, he told me. I hung out in that parking lot until 5 a.m., interviewing victims and phoning quotes up to New York. That sort of work is known as “legs” in Times lingo, and the story slug (computer file name) in this case was “bomb.” My check arrived the following week, all of $75, with the memo line “legs for bomb.”

I doubt there would be any copy editor on duty long after deadline at The Tennessean – nor, in fairness, at any other news organization in Nashville – much less a copy editor capable of managing a breaking news story of that magnitude on the fly. That’s the quality Times subscribers are willing to pay for.

Of course, Gannett would have us believe it can go toe-to-toe with any competitor on editorial quality. It too filed its annual report with the SEC last week. There the company asserted: “Our connection to – and understanding of – our communities is unmatched by any other media company.” I’m sorry if that sentence made you throw up in your mouth a little.

*       *       *

Once I started sifting through Gannett’s corporate filings, interesting numbers kept coming up. Here are a few:

Between 2006 and 2010, Chairman and CEO Craig A. Dubow collected $32.9 million in total compensation. For Gracia C. Martore, executive vice president and chief financial officer, the number was $21.2 million. Payday numbers for 2011 are not yet public.

At the end of 2006, Gannett’s newspapers employed 37,575 full- and part-time workers. At the end of 2011, the headcount was about 20,900. If the average salary of the workers purged over those years was $30,000, as seems a reasonable guess, then the comp packages of the company’s top two officers would have funded 1,800 jobs, somewhat more than a tenth of the total positions lost.

Gannett’s SEC filings, like those of all big corporations these days, go on at length about the supposedly careful and externally validated ways the board of directors sets the pay of top management. It’s all about pay for performance, we hear so often. Well, you can measure performance any number of ways, but one factor perhaps not getting much attention in the Gannett boardroom is how many people are reading Gannett newspapers – still the main business segment of the diversified media conglomerate.

Gannett gives out its own estimate of the “reach” of its U.S. papers in each year’s annual report to the SEC. “Reach” is a multiple of total circulation by a presumed pass-along factor — maybe two or three people will pick up and read each copy of the paper each day, on average. In 2006, the company said its newspapers reached 16.7 million readers every weekday and 14 million every Sunday. Last week’s report says that in 2011, 11.6 million people a day read Gannett papers, along with 12.6 million on Sundays.

By its own reckoning, then, Gannett lost 5.1 million daily readers in five years, along with 1.4 million Sunday readers.

*       *       *

Though I try not to dwell on it, I sometimes think about the sense of promise I felt when I joined The Tennessean‘s business desk in 1993. David A. Fox and Bill Carey were there – later the co-founders of NashvillePost.com, and good friends before and since. Tim Martin was there – the last (the only?) full-time labor reporter at a Nashville newspaper, and an absolute master of his beat. Ed Gregory was there, turning fine technology stories as the internet was in its infancy. Many of my dearest friends were downstairs at the Banner, where my wife was the food writer, but we beat it like a ginger-haired stepchild on biz stories.

A few stalwarts of the paper’s glory days were still around – Bunny Honicker, Gene Wyatt, Dwight Lewis, and above all, Frank Sutherland, then the editor, a man who had done first-rate investigative work alongside Al Gore, Pulitzer winner Nat Caldwell and others in the late 1960s and 1970s. John Seigenthaler had retired in 1991, I think. Frank was a link to the glorious past, and Gannett named him its editor of the year in 1994, so it briefly looked as though we could maintain the old values under the Gannett regime – which I think Seig had held largely at bay in the decade between the purchase of the paper and his retirement.

There were weak links, to be sure: The quality of the copy editing could be really bad. (What a quaint concern in 2012!) And there were unformed talents that would go on to bigger things.

One who comes to mind was a recent graduate named Jeff Pearlman who seemed to go out of his way to get into trouble. After he asked the Friths, of Corner Market fame, whether they had ever cooked lion (an endangered species), or possibly something worse like human flesh (memory fuzzy here), he had been busted from lifestyles to a night cops job as of election night 1994. I was working the news desk that night to pick up a little overtime (remember overtime, fellow scribes?). Jeff filed a story on a Johns bust. His lede:

“All [John Smith] wanted was a blowjob.”

It was perfect, really, and would certainly run in today’s Scene. But it fell to me to explain why we couldn’t run it in a “family newspaper.” I helped him come up with a more anodyne opening to a story that surely would have been much more memorable in its original version.

Pearlman is now one of the nation’s most successful sportswriters.

Could the paper have retained and developed him, Fox, Martin, Carey, me and others who have had success in journalism since leaving 1100 Broadway? Could there have been another generation of dream-team reporting at The Tennessean, at least aspiring to match what the likes of David Halberstam, Jim Squires and Tom Wicker achieved back in the day?

I held out such hopes in 1993. When essentially the first story I ever pursued turned into a major investigation spanning six months, requiring travel to Florida and Georgia as well as the hiring of a stringer in Monaco, with the paper spending at least $50,000 on my time, lawyers, air travel and so forth, it sure seemed like the good old days. I was investigating a local Moral Majority-type activist who was not at all what he seemed. Sutherland gave me carte blanche, remarking: “We’re going to give the business community in this town a reason to take this paper seriously, and maybe fear it a bit.”

That was cool – and nothing remotely like it has ever again happened, in my reporting for The Tennessean, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Business Nashville, NashvillePost.com, The City Paper and other publications.

In fact, the dead hand of Gannett was already present as I worked on that piece, and again in 1995 when I was investigating a local music exec whose mafia-related stock fraud case had landed him in the Federal Witness Protection Program – which hid from local authorities the fact that he had also been convicted of raping his daughter. Dave Green, widely seen as Gannett’s enforcer of orthodoxy in the newsroom as Sutherland’s nominal second in command (the Soviet term “polytruk” comes to mind, the company officer who keeps a grip on thoughts within the military ranks) countermanded Sutherland’s orders when it came time to write up both of those investigations. We were up against litigation threats in both cases, but in both, the magnificent First Amendment attorney Al Knight had blessed versions of the stories as I had written them. In each instance, about half the full story made it into print.

*       *       *

I have waxed nostalgic at far too much length here, but I did so because of questions that have bedeviled me for much of the past decade: How can a democratic society function without old-fashioned, shoe-leather, community-oriented journalism? How have we reached the juncture at which the trade of journalism has lost most of its market value? What kind of country will we become if we don’t find some mechanism – and hey, I’d be delighted if paywalls turn out to be the mechanism we need – to pay for high-quality local journalism?

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About Tom

I'm an old news man, any way you look at me. Not as old in years as some local journos I much admire, but committed to bringing old news from Nashville's deeper past back to life.
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2 Responses to Paper losses

  1. A J Andrews says:

    I, too, fear for local journalism. I like to think it is evolving, but it is just possible it is dying. What the newspapers are not figuring out is that almost everything for which folks traditionally looked to newspapers can now be had from any number of sources for free, Ad revenue is all that will save them; as you have observed, most can not even think about charging for content. Improving the product seems not to occur to them, and The Tennessean has gotten shoddier faster than most of the rest. For a field where being up on the latest is stock in trade, news media is woefully behind the curve on their own story.

  2. Joe Biddle says:

    Tom
    Loved it. Brought back lot of memories. It is a sad, sad case that was not necessary.
    The only thing that can save papers in markets like Nashville is if the Big Know It All
    Corporations sell to local businessmen who know the community they live and work in
    and hire those who will bust their buns to make it work with highly readable journalism.
    Joe Biddle
    Hi to Nik

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