Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Desperately Seeking The Newspaper

Posted By on Tue, Aug 13, 2013 at 5:00 AM

Dear Gannett,

You don't know me, but I know you very well.

Since I was 9 years old, you've owned the largest daily newspaper in my hometown of Nashville, The Tennessean. I've watched almost every move that you've made with fascination, because the fortunes of your company affect the paper here greatly. I worked in the building at 1100 Broadway for the Nashville Banner and saw up close the editorial strategies wash down from headquarters in Virginia. I left for a decade-and-a-half but came home a few times a year, always fascinated by the constant whittling that went on — to the size of the pages, to the page counts, and to the staff.

Last week, though, was the straw that broke the camel's back.

We need you to sell The Tennessean.

It's just as well. The days when you could make 35 percent or more on the back of this market are over. If the $2.2 billion you just spent on Belo's broadcast assets are any indication, you don't see this changing anytime soon in your print markets. As a matter of fact, just the same as News Corp. and Tribune, you probably don't even see yourself as a newspaper publisher over the long term.

Like a lot of newspaper chains, you don't have any recognizable strategy going forward other than cutting. You have decimated the copy and design desks throughout your papers with a production hub system that — from what people tell us on the inside — sounds a lot like a recipe for disaster because it's never been adequately staffed, at least not in Nashville. Your CEO announced in January that Gannett would turn the 46,000 digital subscribers into at least a quarter million. As of July, that number was just 65,000. The paywall which was erected on Tennessean.com (and other Gannett sites) looks a lot more like a backdoor move to protect the golden goose of Sunday print circulation than anything else. Otherwise you'd actually be enforcing it, right?

Last week, when the cuts came again — remember the heady days when you just did quarterly furloughs and made people take unpaid vacation? — the news was buried on page D3. The story carried a "staff reports" byline, which means that either everybody worked on it or it was handed down from someone in the publisher's office and it went straight into the paper.

"The local layoffs were part of a trend that saw jobs lost nationwide at a number of newspapers owned by Tennessean parent Gannett Co. Inc. The moves, however, were based on local market performance and not mandated by the corporatiom. [sic]"

Let's see if we can get this straight: More than 300 jobs were cut across the company ... and IN AN AMAZING COINCIDENCE all of them were the result of local market conditions and not "mandated by the corporatiom [sic]." A week later, this laughable piece of corporate apologetics still enrages. I'm sure that if the Tennessean didn't make those cuts in the newsroom, advertising and marketing that publisher Laura Hollingsworth's job would have been adversely affected by "local market performance and not mandated by the corporatiom [sic]."

When you've cut so much that you don't have anyone proofing pages or performing basic copy editing tasks — either in the publisher's office or in the newsroom — and you misspell "corporation" in a story about the corporation, you may have cut too many people, no matter who mandated it.

And the cuts have so destroyed morale at 1100 Broadway that people are cutting themselves.

The Tennessean's most notable feature writer, Jennifer Justus, turned in her notice. As did Dipti Vaidya, an excellent photographer. As did business reporter Walker Moskop and Jaquetta White in June. These weren't people who were shown the door. These were talented people who looked around and said, "This isn't getting better anytime soon, I'm seeking other opportunities." And we can tell you that more are on the way.

As a matter of fact, there have been so many departures that the newsroom got a mulligan and offered sports writer John Glennon his job back. No word on whether or not he's taken them up on it. (Side note: If you're looking down the list of people to cut, how in the world could you decide to cut Glennon? As the No. 2 guy on the Titans and the Predators beats — the tentpoles of your sports section, in what has become a professional sports kind of town — he was vital. If I'm Jim Wyatt covering the Titans or Josh Cooper covering the Predators, I'm looking at the management that thinks a major metro daily can cover a professional sporting franchise with a single beat reporter and sending my resume out fast. Wyatt and Cooper are top guys who don't need the implied disrespect of the people who call the shots.)

It's a mess here. Over the weekend, section editors were dispatched to tell readers about changes that were coming which would make the paper better. Maybe one of those changes should have been not cutting the paper's only courts reporter, Bobby Allyn. My guess is that after he walked a post-layoff Jack White scoop over to The City Paper and helped them beat The Tennessean to the story of Vandy football players being indicted, he's not going to be welcomed back.

It's a mess because you're a public corporation with both eyes on quarterly results, but the news business is built on people and not widgets, and the cuts affect the product much more deeply.

It's a mess because you keep parachuting in editors from out of town, treating The Tennessean like it's a AAA baseball club. At least the current one actually lives here instead of commuting back and forth to Virginia.

It's a mess because the paper's reputation among locals is so awful that a clean slate is the only way to save it. Don't believe me? The paper's market penetration rate for the last 20 years says otherwise.

Sell the paper to someone else. Sell it to someone who will take a longer view than three months. Sell it to someone who recognizes that innovations are going to have to come faster than updating your website every five years, or be better than handing iPhones to your staff and telling them to shoot video, or be less insulting than "webcasts" with production values so low they look like an SNL sketch.

When Don Graham announced the sale of the Washington Post last week, his concern was more for the final product than his company's bottom line.

“We had innovated and to my critical eye our innovations had been quite successful in audience and in quality, but they hadn’t made up for the revenue decline. Our answer had to be cost cuts and we knew there was a limit to that. We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed,” he said.

Nashville's limit is here, Gannett.

Sell The Tennessean.

Sincerely,

Steve

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