Election Night Pizza, Served Ice Cold

The Observer picks a hell of a day to announce still more staff cuts
The Charlotte Observer

Yesterday morning, Election Day, newsroom staffers at The Charlotte Observer received the following email from their editor, Rick Thames:

You may have heard that some divisions within the Observer have announced some job eliminations and reorganizations.

In the newsroom, less than a half-dozen colleagues are affected in some way. All have been told. Several people had hours reduced or will interview for other jobs here; others stepped forward either to reduce hours or leave. But for the most part, we found the expense reduction needed by eliminating existing openings and reducing other categories of spending. We tried to minimize the number of people affected.

With many people working later schedules today, we will have a standup at 4 p.m. to answer questions. Those who cannot be here at that time can check with me, Cheryl [Carpenter, the managing editor] or your supervisor for a summary. Thanks.

Enjoy your Election Night pizza.

You’d think that the exsanguination at the CO, which started in 2007 or so, would have abated by now. But apparently there’s still more flesh to be carved away. I haven’t visited the newsroom since I left in October 2008 (five years!), but I talk to ex-colleagues who have, and they describe it in the tones you’d reserve for an abandoned amusement park, or mall, or Detroit: Boy, this place used to be great. Now look at it. A shame. A damn shame. You can practically hear that desolate “water dripping from the ceiling onto a concrete floor” sound.

And if they had more cuts to make, for gosh sakes, would it have killed them to wait a day instead of breaking the bad news on Election Day, of all days? 

Election Day is to newsrooms as Black Friday is to Macy’s or Belk, the reason for being. The paper springs for pizza. Staffers eat off soggy paper plates as they tap out the background to the election stories they’ll top off with the results as soon as they roll in. The results have a way of rolling in approximately 20 seconds before deadline. You can usually count on a copy editor throwing something across the room. It’s magical. I know no one who worked in newspapers whose eyes don’t mist over at the mention of Election Night. More than any other, it lends newspaper people the sensation that — even now — they’re at the center of things, charged with getting the news about our democracy’s most basic operation back to the people who both run it and face its consequences. On those nights, and on days when there’s a huge national or worldwide calamity, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

Which is why getting a note like Thames’s on Election Day, with its uptight mid-level accountant’s verbiage — “we found the expense reduction needed by eliminating existing openings and reducing other categories of spending” — just sucks.

It didn’t have to be this way. Newspapers were never going to avoid the ramifications of the Internet age. But some have adjusted more successfully than others.

Like The Orange County Register, for instance. The people there have accepted a few basic truths that their counterparts at the Observer — and, to be fair, most other papers — have failed or refused to accept: Newspapers will never again be consumers’ primary source for news. The classified ad revenue the industry floated on for the better part of a century is gone forever. The key to survival is to accept your new status as a niche publication that specializes in high-quality local (and maybe state) news no one else can provide. Plant your flag there. Screw the rest.

That’s more or less what the Register did, beefing up its print product rather than chopping it down to a pamphlet, and — amazing! — they’re doing pretty well (via Mashable’s Q&A with Freedom Communications President and Co-Owner Eric Spitz):

We saw an industry whose problems could be mapped pretty closely back to a series of really bad decisions rather than external forces. Everyone had the Internet to deal with. Everyone didn’t have to make the decisions this industry made.

The key decisions they made — and they were the worst decisions anyone has made in my memory — they made 20 years or so ago. They took their core product, the news, and priced it at free. If you are McDonald’s, you can give away straws, napkins, Wi-Fi and really nice TV sets that everybody can watch, but you can’t give away cheeseburgers. [The newspaper] industry understood they were giving up one revenue stream [i.e., subscriptions], but they thought they could make that revenue up through advertising. I think 20 years later the amount of revenue you can derive from advertising is less than they thought. But the bigger problem they created is telling your customer that your product has no value …

For 75 years, this industry was an advertiser-first, subscriber-second business. [There have been three primary topics at management meetings]: One, finding new digital revenue streams. Two, selling ads. Three, cutting costs. They never talk about the product. And yet this is a product business. There’s no argument that the product has decayed over the last 20 years. We have a very evolved consumer culture, and they know what quality looks like. If you concentrate every day like we do here on producing $10 to $20 worth of value and only charging a dollar for it, people are going to buy it.

Some other folks are starting to wise up. I interviewed last year for a job at The Clarion-Ledger, a Gannett paper in Jackson, Miss. The new editor there had done something extraordinary, and with corporate’s blessing: He and the staff identified five or so “franchise areas” to cover — college sports and state politics high on the list — and vowed to cover them better than anyone else and deliver a must-read Sunday paper. Breaking crime news? Local TV’s territory. Let them have it. Higher ed? A luxury. We don’t have the resources unless it’s a huge story. Weak Thursday paper? We can live with it if it means a blockbuster story for Sunday.

The Ledger isn’t what it was — and, critically, its leaders understand it never will be — but it’s holding its own. And this is Gannett we’re talking about.

You look at the Observer, and it seems they’re still trying to do everything — local crime news, local politics news, banking news, the Panthers, investigations, the environment, features, schools, barbecue — and, with a smaller and smaller staff, doing none of it particularly well, or in a way that’s unique to its pages, whether print or digital.

Damn shame. The product would be much better with some prioritization, and maybe some investment — taking a short-term loss to hire people to produce better content so that the Observer can rebuild its brand over a few years. It’d take time, money and patience, three things newspapers and the corporations that run them are notoriously unwilling to spend.

But the alternative is more announcements like yesterday’s, and a lot of cold pizzas with no one around to eat them. It’s a paradox — to survive, newspapers have to accept their own demotion. But that’s what it’s going to take.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest