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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Feb. 2, 2009, 5:39 p.m.

Newspaper staff cuts: Good news?

At the risk of being burned at the stake by my fellow journalists, I wanted to pass along a thought that occurred to me recently about the wave of layoffs and mass firings that has been rolling through newsrooms across North America — namely, what if this is actually a good thing? Please, hear me out before you arrive at my doorstep with pitchforks and torches.

In order to agree with me, you would have to admit that there are a lot of newspapers (and I know of many personally) that haven’t been moving quite as quickly as they might towards an online future. To a large extent, these papers have been insulated from the need to change by a healthy cash balance, a lock on local advertising markets, a magnanimous owner, a sense of entitlement, etc. (feel free to pick more than one).

What better way to force some change than by administering a large but hopefully non-lethal shock to the system?

With the advertising-revenue wolf clearly at the door, managers at these papers can and have moved swiftly to shed entire categories of sub-editors, to reconfigure the desk system, to merge Web and print duties where they might not have been merged before, and so on — many of these necessary and even crucial changes. Even papers with strong unions have been able to accomplish this, because the economic necessity is so obvious.

Many corporate executives argue at times like these that strong medicine is required, and that they have no choice but to engage in massive layoffs. Such excuses are often seen as disingenuous explanations used to cover up other agendas. But what if in this case those hidden agendas actually achieved a useful purpose — namely, the acceleration of evolution in the stodgy old print media?

The only flaw in this argument — one I am willing to admit up front — is that this presumes that newspaper managers and executives actually know what the proper course of action is, and are only cutting those staff and duties they no longer require, while strengthening those areas of the paper that need more resources. The reality, of course, is that many newspapers are cutting in what are arguably the wrong places, or pushing forward with a completely unrealistic view of what their paper’s strengths and weaknesses are.

I will admit that my theory requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief. And I’d like to note that I feel nothing but sympathy for the tens of thousands of journalists who have been and are continuing to be laid off. But in some cases — not all, I will admit, but some — those layoffs could be a case of radical but necessary surgery to help the patient survive.

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2009, 5:39 p.m.
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