The newspaper industry needs a revival amidst its declining revenue, and it starts with finding people who can remake the business around digital, who can rebuild community trust and engagement. Entrepreneurs. Innovators. Platform-perfect digital practitioners.
But how does one recruit and retain that kind of talent against the backdrop of an industry in turmoil, reinforced by a recent spate of buyouts, layoffs and corporate upheaval?
The problem goes beyond perceptions about the health of the industry. Newspapers are competing with online startups and tech companies for the people with the digital skills they need most. A Buzzfeed or a Vox can be more competitive with salary, benefits and perks, in part because startups are expected to lose money for a while as they build a new business. Newspaper companies need to build new businesses, too, but are so focused on trying to match the profit margins they used to enjoy that it crushes those kind of investments in the future.
Recruits being pitched a vision and a strategy for growth at a legacy media organization have to wonder whether both will be undermined by random expense cuts every time there’s a quarter with worse-than-expected print revenue declines, which has been most quarters for the past two or three years, according to the Pew Research Center (pewrsr.ch/1GwfEVR).
Newspaper publisher and executive ranks still dominated by print industry veterans, and the widespread adoption of bundled-with-print paywalls can also turn off digital natives trying to decide between a legacy media job and a pure digital play.
Some still see strong advantages, however. Dr. Jill Geisler, a professor at Loyola University and author of the book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” (whatgreatbossesknow.com) points to location, audience reach and reputation as potentially important considerations for job seekers.
The Los Angeles Times saw significant cuts in the fall as parent Tribune accepted buyouts from 7 percent of its workforce across the country. But S. Mitra Kalita, who left innovative business news startup Quartz to join the paper as managing editor in March, still sees a big upside for recruits.
“I have spent much of the last 10 years in startups, where you begin with an audience of zero. The luxury I have at the L.A. Times is a built-in audience. There is an opportunity for us to increase their consumption of our journalism via multiple products, newsletters, our mobile app, live events such as food fairs and the Festival of Books, our website,” Kalita said. “We hit 41 million uniques in October, the highest we’ve had in about two years and, importantly to me, not driven by a single story. So to me, there is no death narrative—new audiences are out there and opportunities to better serve the existing one are, too.”
The modern recruitment challenge for newspapers provides an opportunity to focus on diversity, an area that has suffered badly during past retrenchment in the industry. At Gannett’s Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., vice president of news Karen Magnuson has “cast a wider net and looked for unconventional candidates.” The former editor of Beirut.com, who had never before worked at a newspaper, has joined the staff as an editor focused on mobile.
Magnuson has also built a local recruitment pipeline focused on tech-savvy graduates from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Meanwhile, “new media isn’t always nirvana,” said Geisler, pointing to recent unionization drives at sites such as Gawker and the Huffington Post (bit.ly/1lFoZrE). And at some point, the venture capital dollars behind startups that grow rapidly run out, leading to some very newspaper-like downsizing and turmoil.
Legacy media CEOs who (rightfully) want to view the challenge ahead of them from a startup-like mindset should consider this reality: If a staff that used to have 60 people now has 20, what are you expecting from it if nothing else has changed? Have you articulated a major rethinking of mission and strategy considering the change in resources? Does the leadership and rank-and-file have any assurance that the number won’t be 18, 16, 14 or 12 people three, six or 12 months from now, regardless if the strategy changes? Do you pay the people who are left the same (in other words, mostly stagnant wages since 2008)? Have you reversed the other cuts focused on humans (401k match, health insurance changes, furloughs)? Have you made a big push to invest in individual career development and empowerment?
Geisler says that recruitment should come with the promise of being treated as a “person, not just a producer.” If any industry needed that message to resonate right now, from the top to the bottom of organizations, it’s newspapers.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.