The Last Cut is the Deepest

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By: Joe Strupp

As Popeye used to say, ?That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!? Even as an ex-sailor man, he may have never worked at a newspaper, but for many of us who have — and those souls who still do and now face a sudden epidemic of buyout/layoff plans — the sentiment is no doubt spreading.

In the past week or so, six of the country’s major daily newspapers have revealed plans to kill more than 350 jobs through a mix of buyouts and layoffs. Since just last Tuesday, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and, most recently, San Jose Mercury News, have announced plans that will eliminate roughly 232 newsroom jobs, in addition to dozens more in non-editorial positions.

Add to that the 120 or so jobs expected to be lost at the San Francisco Chronicle, which less than two weeks ago announced it was close to reaching that mark for a buyout offer, and 352 newsroom positions at just six newspapers will be history. And those are just the ones we’ve heard about in recent weeks.

No telling what budget-slashing knife is being sharpened elsewhere in this Honey-We-Shrunk-the-Newsroom business, much of it in the name of greed or at least bottom-line paranoia.

In most of these cases, cuts are the answer not to low profits, but to less-than-acceptable profits. For each of these newspapers ?- all owned by major media chains — making money has not been a problem. The question has been making “enough money,” a subjective phrase if there ever was one. In most cases, enough money is what meets Wall Street expectations and projections, not an acceptable income from a business hit by tough times.

Except for the Chronicle, which has proven through outside audits that it has actually lost tens of millions of dollars annually in recent years, the massive job reductions are in many ways a quick way to boost current net income.

But it is clear that neither the Globe nor Times are losing money. And when Joseph Natoli, publisher of the Knight Ridder-owned Inquirer and Daily News, spoke with me last week, he declared his papers’ profit margins were in the ?low teens.? This is not bad for most businesses.

So why the mass forced-exodus of personnel? At a time when newspapers are competing more than ever with any number of growing media competitors, what on earth makes anyone think they can boost their reach and appeal by cutting staff? Especially when achieved largely by buying out valuable, experienced staffers? Despite the brave words of editors, this can only slowly erode quality.

If fewer people are buying a product — whether it’s a newspaper or a can of soup — how does decreasing the quality of that product make it sell better? Newspapers cannot cover news better with fewer people. The six newspapers involved in the latest cuts have won a combined 136 Pulitzer Prizes since the awards were first given 88 years ago. If cuts keep occurring, don’t expect such lofty award numbers during the next 88 years.

While the Times, with some 1,200 editorial staffers, can pretty much continue to do its premiere job with 45 fewer people, the hit on the other job-slashing dailies will surely have a negative impact.

I understand that we are in tough times in this business and cost-cutting is needed. But systematically dismantling your newsrooms so drastically is foolish.

If papers want to entice new readers and bring back old ones, they should change the way they report events. In short, that means giving those who focus more on the Web and broadcast outlets a reason to pick up the paper. And it won’t be done by trying to compete with bloggers on the cheap.

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