The Hidden Cost of Newsroom Cuts

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By: Dave Astor Newspaper layoffs and buyouts are bad news for obvious reasons. Staffers lose good jobs they may not be able to replicate, readers get a not-as-good newspaper
produced by fewer people, and the remaining employees have to work harder to make up for the departure of colleagues.

What may not be as obvious is how a smaller staff affects a newspaper's direct interactions with readers.

Reporters and editors who are doing their own jobs as well as the work of their laid-off or bought-out brethren have even less time to respond to reader calls and e-mails. When journalists are too busy to talk or reply to readers with a bone to pick (or praise to offer), newspapers lose a little more public support.

I thought about this when doing stories this year that involved interviews with newspaper editors. I cover mostly syndication for E&P, and thus mostly interview cartoonists, columnists, and syndicate executives. Many of them know me, and virtually all get back to me when I contact them for a story I'm writing.

That also used to be the case when I contacted newspaper editors. Many didn't know me, but the vast majority returned my calls.

During the last few years, however, I have noticed a difference. Now, when I phone a bunch of newspaper editors, I'm lucky to get 25-50% of them to return my calls. For instance, when I phoned more than 20 newspaper editors this March to find out whether they might drop columnist Ann Coulter for hurling a gay slur at John Edwards, only about a quarter of the editors talked. The other 15 or so never even called back.

You might say that was a controversial topic some editors wanted no part of. Well, during the past two weeks, I phoned 11 newspaper editors to discuss the somewhat more benign topic of reader comics polls for a story that will run in E&P's September print magazine. Five talked; six didn't call back.

This is all anecdotal, of course, and maybe some editors are more likely to return the calls of readers than the calls of an E&P writer. But I have a feeling that many editors at staff-shrunk newspapers are just too busy these days to get back to a lot of readers.

Every time a reader manages to get through a complicated voice-mail system and doesn't get a return call from an editor or reporter, the reader may become annoyed. Every time a reader sends an e-mail to an editor or reporter
and doesn't receive a reply, the reader may become annoyed. The result: possible canceled subscriptions, which newspapers can ill afford.

Heck, enough canceled subscriptions can lead to even more layoffs and buyouts, which can make the remaining editors and reporters even busier, which can lead to even more ignoring of readers contacting the newspaper, which ... well, you get the picture.

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