Editorial: New Name for Layoffs

By: E&P Staff

When your newspaper starts talking about ‘bold’ and ‘radical’ restructuring, be advised: The pink slip is next.
 
With the economy in a feeble rebound, we look to be in yet another “jobless recovery” as the economists say. To that phenomenon, newspapers recently have been adding their own wrinkle: Call it the “jobless revolution.”
 
In recent weeks, USA Today, The Deseret News in Salt Lake City and the Canadian chain of former Canwest newspapers that now styles itself as Postmedia Network have all breathlessly announced “bold” or “radical” changes that amount to pretty much the same thing: de-emphasizing print to become a “digital-first” or “mobile-first” news and information organization. The Deseret News went so far as to proclaim that its steps — such as assembling an editorial advisory board and a group of experts who will contribute the occasional column — provided a “bold new direction … and leadership at a time when daily newspapers throughout America are struggling to define a course for the future.”
 
Wow, thanks for that, Deseret News.
 
Paired with these proclamations in all three cases was the news, announced sotto voce, that radical restructuring also required, um, layoffs. Postmedia hasn’t said exactly how many jobs it’s shedding, though its unions predictably call it an “appalling” number.  USA Today will be R.I.F-ing 130 people, or about 9% of its staff. The Deseret News swung the biggest axe, shedding 57 full-time and 28 part-time employees — 43% of its newsroom staff.
 
Look, layoffs are a fact of newspaper industry life, and other companies bluntly warned last year that they would keep wringing out costs into 2010 with the inevitable job losses that process entails. By September, The Kansas City Star, just to name one example, had had three rounds of layoffs in the year. But the Star didn’t pretend that the people who were laid off lost their jobs in the service of some imagined information revolution.
 
Besides, it’s unclear to us, anyway, why a digital-first or mobile-first model demands fewer journalists. The Pan-Am Highway column on Latin American media notes in this issue that Jornal do Brasil, one of Brazil’s oldest papers at 119 years of publication, stopped printing entirely on Sept. 1. Yet it kept its newsroom of 150 journalists intact as it moved to online-only publication. The betting here is that its news and information offerings will be far richer — and provide more revenue opportunities — than anything a downsized newsroom could produce.  
 
It’s entirely possible that these wrenching restructurings will prove prescient, that mobile-first will, for instance, reinvigorate USA Today, a newspaper that was born of innovation and, truly, bold thinking. In an utterly changed media — and business — environment where USA Today’s formula of providing news quickly and colorfully in print no longer works magic and where its once-formidable audience of business travelers has shrunk, a mobile-first strategy positions the newspaper in a medium in which people actually expect to pay something to access information and entertainment.
 
But at all three companies, a price was paid, too, by journalists and other employees who lost their jobs. No amount of soaring rhetoric can camouflage that doleful fact.

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Published: October 1, 2010

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