'What fresh hell is this?'

Dateline: Mon 31 Aug 2009

David Carr is a New York Times writer known for going for the jugular, but in a subtle and skilled fashion. Before landing on his feet at the Times, he was a crack addict, a story he tells in his memoir, "The Night of the Gun." Becoming a father to twins straightened him out, and now that his head is together, he writes insightful pieces about newspapers and media.

The story of what Gannett is doing in Westchester, N.Y., has been on the Gannettoid blog and in Editor and Publisher, but Carr gives it his unique spin in today's 'The Media Equation' column in the Times.

Carr's chilling speculative forecast is that Westchester could well be a taste of what is to come for all Gannett papers --- the New York daily is at the core of Gannet's "new media" experiment, and Gannett now shows us how that successful business model is rewarded:


"You’re Gone. But Hey, You Can Reapply.


On Aug. 12, the employees of The Journal News, a Westchester daily owned by Gannett, were told that there would be further staff reductions at the daily paper, which covers Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties in New York. No surprise there.

But the suburban newspaper is at the vanguard of the industry: reporters at The Journal News don’t work in a newsroom, they are part of an “Information Center”; they don’t cover beats, they cover “topics”; and in a new wrinkle to an old story, the staff was not being laid off, but becoming part of a “comprehensive restructuring plan.”

Specifically, the 288 news and advertising employees at The Journal News were told that jobs were being redefined and that they all would need to reapply for the new positions and that by the time the re-org music stopped, 70 of them would be without jobs.

What fresh hell is this?

For the last three weeks, employees at The Journal News have lived in a netherworld in which they were asked to justify their existence in a changing, shrinking world. After filling out an application on Sharepoint, a corporate Web site, that asked them about their new-media skills, among other things, and then being interviewed by corporate human resources executives pulled in by Gannett, they were called up to the third floor of the offices in Westchester last Thursday and given an offer letter in a thin white envelope — “Thank you for your participation in the restructuring of the Information Center department at The Journal News. I am pleased to extend you an offer. ...” — or a much thicker manila envelope explaining their departure and severance.

“It was an unreal day around here, with people being called up to the third floor and being told. We’d clap when someone came down and gave a thumbs up, but it became obvious that many of the people being called up later would not be sticking around,” said one person who got an offer and wants to keep it that way by not being identified as being critical of the process.

Let’s take a short breath here. Corporate bloodletting is part of the everyday life of many Americans right now, and people in the journalism business represent a microscopic part of both G.D.P. and a larger misfortune that is falling on all American workers. (Don’t look for a lot of that kind of news at The Journal, by the way: The entire business reporting and editing staff was laid off in the reorganization.)

But the effort deserves some scrutiny because although it was conceived locally by Michael J. Fisch, publisher and president of the newspaper, it could portend things to come at Gannett, which has 84 daily newspapers and 850 nondaily publications.

One longtime worker who received a manila envelope, but still asked to remain anonymous — “This is not a great time for me to make waves” — was bitter about the process.

“How is the fact that I don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account relevant to what I do?” he said. “After many years of great work here, I have to go into some office and tell a person who I have never met why I deserve to work at The Journal. I probably didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my disgust.”

Confronted by the Hobbesian prospect of lobbying for a job they thought they already had, some simply said no thanks. The majority of the sales staff in the Rockland office — eight out of 11 people — declined to reapply and took severance. Most chose to participate, though, because in the current environment, the management has all the leverage. Anybody who leaves journalism right now will probably not find a way back in.

“I don’t feel like a winner even though I still have my job,” said Ernie Garcia, a staff writer who covers Yonkers who credited his management with being straightforward and honest throughout the process. Still, he said: “I wish there had been a straight-up layoff. This was very nerve-racking and agonizing. And everyone in our business has to live with this uncertainty going forward. “

Mike Roy, a photographer with significant video skills, expected to be part of the new future at The Journal News, but he was cut last week. He wondered whether the plan wasn’t just a way for the company to slim down while covering itself legally.

On one level, the plan seems to make sense. Advertising revenue has dropped more than 30 percent in the last year at The Journal News. On the plus side, blogs at the newspaper’s highly evolved, highly local Web site account for 20 percent of the traffic there, four times higher than the industry average, according to Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell. Redefining beat reporting jobs with blogging, video and social media baked in is arguably a plan for the long haul.

Mr. Fisch, the publisher, said that the reapplication process was intended to reconfigure the business to comport with new realities, not cut salaries. (Six reporters I spoke to said that although their job description had changed, their compensation had not.)

“The restructuring or reinvention was really focused on getting the right skill sets to take us forward, given all the challenges in a multiplatform environment,” he said by phone.

Past the management-speak, Mr. Fisch did not sound like the kind of ogre that would make for good column copy when I spoke to him on Wednesday as many of his employees were getting the bad news. He sugarcoated nothing and did not try to minimize the damage to morale or news gathering.

“It gives us all pause,” he said. “You try to do things with the greatest amount of respect for the individual, but we know that the trust between employer and employee has been shaken. If you have been here 10 years or 20 years and you are asked to hit the reset button, you are going to have strong feelings about that.”

Mr. Fisch, who has been at the newspaper for two years, said that he did not go through the process, but “as chief executive, I reapply for my job basically every day.”

His approach to reconfiguration of the newspaper and its Web site, called LoHud for Lower Hudson, could end up being in demand if the process impresses Gannett officials.

“Gannett has looked to The Journal News and LoHud.com as one of its leading-edge local news models,” said Mr. Doctor. “It just makes sense that ‘restaffing’ the operation there is another step on the road to reshaping Gannett — print and broadcast — across the country.”

Working reporters already know that if they want to make it out of this business alive, it behooves them to file early and often on whatever platform management puts in front of them. But Gannett, the highest-margin operator in the business in the good old days, is cutting to the chase, effectively putting a premium on new-media output while salaries and staffing remain constant, thereby driving down the per-unit cost of content that it sells ads against.

It has its own cold logic. If the news is worth less than it used to be in a new digital economy, we better make more of it and more cheaply. I guess we’re going to have to reapply ourselves"


Seneca [unverified] said:

"What fresh hell is this?"

It may be hell (to you) but it ain't fresh.

It's been around for decades. When the company I was with was bought out all the working people (including me) were forced to reapply for jobs we already had. And to take a drug test. And to undergo hours and hours of forced indoctrination (they called it "orientation"). That was 25 years ago.

Hell? Yes. Fresh? No.

2009-09-01 09:03:06

Etiquette [unverified] said:

Just by-the-by, copy and pasting the entire text of a story into a blog post is very, very, very bad form (and, by any definition, copyright infringement).

Just link and summarize. I'm sure the NYTimes would appreciate the traffic.

2009-09-01 13:16:10

Seneca [unverified] said:

". . . copyright infringement"

Even when it is made very clear where the story comes from and the byline of the person who wrote it is at the top?

2009-09-02 09:42:24

Etiquette [unverified] said:

"Even when it is made very clear where the story comes from and the byline of the person who wrote it is at the top? "

If I put out a CD with liner notes that includes the names of the artists performing, but without compensating the artist, is that not copyright infringement?

Attribution is not the same thing. In this case, there isn't even a link back to the original article.

Another example: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/31/AR2009073102476.html

And that was just overly summarizing the article.

Ignoring the copyright infringement bit for a minute, it's just uncool.

The New York Times gets paid every time someone views one of their articles (not much, but some). Reward good journalism when you find and link to it/drive traffic to it, it's not hard.

Taking another view, the more traffic that article gets on the New York Times site (where they can track it), the more they realize people are interested in the story itself. Which can lead to more reporting along a similar vein.

And that seems to me to be exactly what Ruth would like to see happen ... and this doesn't help.

2009-09-02 13:20:32

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