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Aug. 25, 2014, 3:02 p.m.
Business Models

The newsonomics of Gannett’s “newsrooms of the future”

America’s largest newspaper company says it’s building for the future. But it’s hurting its own value proposition in the process.

It’s easy to ridicule Gannett’s latest newsroom proclamations. The company recently set itself up for satire by announcing “newsrooms of the future” — at the same time it was separating print assets from broadcast and digital ones and launching new rounds of buyouts and layoffs.

It’s harder to divorce the ideas behind the newsroom redo — many of which make some basic sense, and indeed are being used by highly regarded news startups — from Gannett’s own on-again, off-again innovation history. Real questions of corporate authenticity and staying power bedevil any grand pronouncements. Let’s look at this tangled web of newsroom change and try to make sense of it.

Even when Gannett has done good and smart things, its achievements can be obscured by how it operates. An example: Years ago, Gannett emerged as an early leader in newsroom diversity, on its staffs, in management, and in the content of its papers. While Gannett’s peers — Tribune and Knight Ridder, among them — urged and cajoled editors to do better, Gannett enforced its mandates, down to counting the race, ethnicity, and gender of all faces appearing in its papers’ photographs.

It worked, at least to a degree. The papers indeed looked more like the communities they served. But at the same time, this approach to the craft of journalism counted only the most basic of things, enforced through rote counting — a very Gannett approach. Now Gannett — like Advance in its revolutionary capitalist fervor (“Gannett cribs from Advance Publications playbook for struggling newspapers”) — seems intent on a new cookie-cutter approach to change, no matter how well intended.

The list of job descriptions (courtesy Jim Romenesko) now being imposed in five Gannett newsrooms — The Tennessean in Nashville, The Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, The Greenville News in South Carolina, The Pensacola News Journal in Florida, and The Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina — are in many ways commonsensical, including content coaches, community engagement editors, and producers. In total, there are 16 job descriptions that are intended to be used company-wide, and to connect with a new set of metrics, including traffic and other digital countables.

Even if the ideas seem a little paint-by-numbers, the internal name for this restructuring project is Picasso. It’s this penchant for grandiose naming that invites disdain. It doesn’t help (as Romenesko pointed out) that Gannett has already announced such “newsroom of the futures” projects over the last decade, from crowdsourcing to “Information Centers.”

In journalism, we don’t buy and sell futures like hogs. At our best, when we make mistakes, journalists own up to them and move on. News companies that blithely ignore their pasts strain their own future believability.

Consider that after a decade or so of huffing and puffing about building the future, one Gannett editor could promote the latest initiative by saying: “Readers are going to notice very quickly that we’re not just shoveling out printed copy up on the website…The biggest change for us is going to be a hugely expanded [team of] digital producers.”

Still shoveling after all these years? After all these great pronouncements of change and digital leadership? How could that possibly be? What does it tell us about the likelihood of this newest newsroom of the future is to work?

Lost in the many shuffles within Gannett in the last month — separating into two companies, buying, announcing the new newsrooms — is its next major round of newsroom job cuts.

After years of shrinking, Gannett has decided to get yet another jump on the revenue declines to come. Figuring that print advertising will continue to decline annually in the high single digits — as it has for the last three and is this year — the company is taking about 15 percent out of many, if not all, of its 81 community newsroom budgets now, preparing for 2015 and 2016.

That 15 percent is in dollars, not jobs. So it makes sense for publishers and editors to take out the highest-paid jobs, as many companies have done. Translation: More than 15 percent of editorial and community knowledge is being lost.

It’s easy to paint the laying off/buying out of veterans as simply getting rid of the digitally clueless. There’s some of that, of course, but this is mainly a financial exercise, as is most of the change we see sweeping the American news industry this year. Gannett’s editors (and some are quite good) are left to make sense of their smaller deck of cards and work around the edges of a one-size-fits-all reshuffling to preserve the integrity of their work.

Gannett’s cut is notable because it’s so large — on top of more than a half-decade of cuts — and because it anticipates the scale of a “rightsizing” of these newsrooms for next two years. That’s optimistic, given that the print slide is accelerating in certain ways.

There are several reasons for the downward spiral of local news companies. One, though, is very apparent but seldom acknowledged by publishers: Most news publishers are providing lower quality products year after year and charging more for them.

That’s not Gannett’s announced strategy, but it’s been its de facto one. And unfortunately, it’s not alone. Within the last month, we’ve gotten new numbers on newsroom loss.

By the latest ASNE counting, 20,000 jobs have been lost in U.S. daily newsrooms over the last decade, a drop of over 35 percent. There are 36,700 remaining daily newspaper jobs in the U.S, a drop of 3.2 percent year over year. (By way of comparison, local TV stations employ 27,300, according to recently released annual Bob Papper benchmark survey, down 1.4 percent. In local TV news, as in local newspapers, employment is in a seven-year slide. Add up the number of local broadcast news jobs and those in daily newspapers, and they still don’t equal print newsroom employment of a decade ago.)

Not all jobs are being cut equally. Both Gannett and Advance, among others, have thinned the ranks of both managers and editors generally. As someone who’s both managed a multi-editor-layered metro newsroom and depended on myself for editing of some of my Newsonomics work, I understand how the world has changed. The blogging revolution (remember that?) changed our sense of how many touches copy needed. At the same time, readers notice the epidemic of typos and, more importantly, incomprehensible stories, especially when they are being charged 10 to 50 percent more than they were three years ago. They think they’re paying for a “professional” newspaper or website.

Certainly, we need the engagement people, the audience development people, the multimedia producers and more. But let’s not try to kid anyone — ourselves or the readers — that the old-fashioned institution of the knowing, checking editor is a vital role in the food chain. Knowledge, expertise, judgment: We value all those qualities in editors.

Sure, we can add in coaching — mentoring has always been a key ingredient in the best newsroom cultures. Coaching and editing, though, don’t equate, especially in newsrooms increasingly populated by underpaid, relatively inexperienced younger journalists. Even as we recognize the value of the more amorphous community intelligence, and attempt to add it to the news report, greatly diminishing editorial intelligence is a recipe for disaster — and business failure.

In a whisk of a Gannett second, “managers” and “editors” have been lumped into single category. Relatively late to the game of whacking middle management, a swath of newsroom intelligence has been redefined as “layers” and discarded.

Take the words of two of Gannett’ editors, leading the new newsrooms. Here’s Hollis R. Towns, Asbury Park Press executive editor/vice president news:

We are flattening our management structure to be more nimble, with fewer hierarchical reporting lines and fewer managers. Reporters will be able to post to directly, cutting layers to give you the news more quickly and efficiently. Reporters will be empowered to roam for news and listen to you in a more self-directed way. The stories they write will be based on what you read and click on.

And Stefanie Murray, The Tennessean’s executive editor: One major goal of the reshuffling is to have more “self-sufficient reporters producing publication-ready copy.”

Less editing can make sense in the digital age. The idea of none, especially in less and less experienced newsrooms, is a silly one. Again, this isn’t craft snobbery: Editing is part of why people pay for newspaper company content over other news.

Gannett papers’ public pitch, inasmuch as there is one, can be summed up in a word: More. There’s neither evidence that readers want more, nor that these diminished staffs can really create more, at least more of any meaningful quality for readers. Yet a third part of this particular reimagining, along with the job cuts and the new job titles, is a greater emphasis on counting. As we’ve seen the hamster wheel put into effect here and there, counting pageviews seems ascendant. That’s ironic, because in 2014, the direct relationship between pageview (or unique visitor) growth and digital advertising growth is becoming increasingly weaker. (Though, to be fair, the quest for clickbait has gone truly global, now including the Chinese government press. Facebook alert: Please label appropriately.)

This set of restructurings, then, is as likely to obscure the fundamental issues of our times as it is to solve them.

“More,” as expressed in Nashville and more widely, isn’t a winning market idea. Further, the reading public — a.k.a. customers — could care less about internal shuffling. They want better products and services, and that’s not what Gannett is announcing.

The lack of product acceptance isn’t an abstract issue for Gannett. The company’s paywall strategy has stumbled, as it has seen double-digit loss of print circulation volume in some markets. Why? It raised prices in double-digits while failing to offer paying readers a reason to stick with their papers. Its introduction of USA Today content in its local papers, a higher quality/lower cost plan, may make good financial sense, but it’s unlikely to sway local readers who buy papers for local news.

How are these new plans going to deal with that big issue? That’s the big commercial question for Gannett: What will these reduced, lesser-experienced staffs offer their communities of sufficient value?

The impact metrics movement offers one way to count value beyond commodity pageviews, to get at this more elusive question of the value of news products and services the business is delivering. In a world that rewards journalistic product by volume, we go back to the divide between Who/What/When/Where journalism and the higher-value How/Why, with the latter clearly more useful to citizen readers as they try to make sense of disconnected facts (“The newsonomics of how and why”).

Ask readers, and many will tell you they want smarter, deeper, and wider — and that they’re willing to pay for it. The best case scenario of our era: The New York Times’ success in signing up both all-access and digital subscribers. We do have a few regional models — more on them in the months to come — that, Times-like, have kept their newsroom staffing and community knowledge capacity high, and invested in the product against the odds. What the smarter publishers are focusing on is that kind of meaningful engagement with their news brands, better serving a smaller stratum of readers willing to pay.

Those relative few, though, pale against the tide of now-standalone newspaper chains trying to cut their ways into the “newsrooms of the future.”

Photo of Gannett headquarters by Shashi Bellamkonda used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 25, 2014, 3:02 p.m.
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