No one can accuse us of not loving a good media spectacle, but the annual meetings in midtown Manhattan of newspaper executives trying to impress stock analysts aren’t where we usually look for fireworks. Until this morning, when MoveOn.org tried to crash the party.
Inside the comfort and warmth of the Crowne Plaza hotel near Times Square, Tribune Co. executives droned on to stock market analysts about more job cuts they anticipate in 2006, using the almost Orwellian language of “greater efficiencies” in news-gathering, “focus on cost management” and “redeploying resources.” Outside the hotel, frozen MoveOn activists who had gathered 45,000 signatures opposing the company’s already announced job cuts in newsrooms were forming a plan.
Huddled on the sidewalk outside the hotel were Adam Green, civic communications director for MoveOn, a few placard-clutching volunteers, and Todd Gitlin, media activist and professor at Columbia’s Journalism School. Green and Gitlin made a few remarks for the clutch of reporters and photographers who tried to keep their hands warm scribbling notes and avoiding gawking Times Square tourists. Then it was time to crash the party.
Picking up two cardboard boxes containing the 45,000 signatures and heading through the doors to the hotel — followed dutifully by a couple photographers and reporters — Green headed off for his rendezvous with destiny. Sort of. Met at the foot of the escalator by a security guard, Green identified himself and headed up, trailed by a couple of security guards. Once the group hit the second floor, where the conference was being held, a few more security guards — who refused to identify themselves — pushed the procession right back toward the “down” escalator, and into the lobby. There, they were met by even more security guards who, apart from being in a pretty bad mood, seemed to relish a little bit of action. They kicked the group back outside, where it regrouped on 49th street.
Green told me that, having failed to present the boxes to Tribune Chairman Dennis FitzSimons, the new plan was to give the boxes to a Tribune employee known only as “Max,” who had been following them. But when Green turned, with cameras ready to record the moment, Max — no fool, he — reversed course and headed back inside the hotel.
Meantime, inside the conference room, execs from the Tribune Co. were announcing that by the end of the year, it will have cut a full 4 percent of its workforce — a total of 900 jobs, 800 of which will be in the publishing unit.
Tribune Co.’s publishing operations are taking the brunt of the cuts, according to Dow Jones, even though “[p]ublishing revenue [for Tribune Co.] is flat year-to-date…while broadcasting is down about 5.5 percentage, although both are generating solid cash flow.” Indeed, the company’s publishing division made a profit of $595.9 million in the first three quarters of the year, a $93.6 million increase from the same period last year.
Despite the Tribune’s decision to cut costs by cutting staff — and thereby putting at risk the quality of the product it offers readers — readership for the newspaper industry as a whole, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, “remains strong … On an average weekday, 77 percent of adults in the top 50 markets read a newspaper at least once daily, as do 68 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds. And in general, newspapers have successfully embraced the Internet; they operate 11 of the top 25 online news and information Web sites — at a time when one-third of the entire Internet population visits newspaper Web sites.”
But back to the action on the ground, where all was not lost, and if nothing else, a small moral victory was scored. As a reporter for Paidcontent.org wrote, MoveOn activist Noah Winer actually managed to make it past the security phalanx and into the conference, where he “made a mini-speech and tried to present a petition with 45,000 signatures protesting the job cuts.” In a wish-we-had-been-there moment, Winer asked Tribune Chairman Dennis FitzSimons, “Many of us are wondering why you’re cutting the ability to deliver news your readers want. Will you meet with some of those consumers? They’re outside.” Needless to say, Winer didn’t get a response.
But as Paidcontent.org tells us in an update, Winer tracked down FitzSimons after the meeting, “ask[ing] repeatedly if he would meet with “his customers.” FitzSimons looked at him, and said,
It’s not surprising that FitzSimons wouldn’t give Winer the time of day — after all, it’s pretty obvious at this point that neither quality journalism nor engaging critics of its business tactics is high on Tribune Co.’s list of priorities. However, cutting newsroom staffs — from Los Angeles to Chicago to Baltimore to Orlando to Hartford — is.
As we’ve noted before, ignoring employee protests is par for the course for media executives these days. It’s practically part of the job description. Employees are not the desired audience, anyway; stock analysts are. But ignoring nascent protests like MoveOn’s is another matter entirely, and FitzSimons is stepping onto new and uncertain ground here. After all, those 45,000 signatures represent readers of Tribune Co. newspapers in half a dozen different cities. In other words, they’re customers. And when customers rise up to complain about the continued degradation of the product being offered to them, it might behoove chief executive officers to pause and start thinking things through. And it might behoove Wall Street to start wondering about a management whose only apparent tool is across-the-board payroll cuts that leave newspapers putting out a lesser product and leave customers feeling shortchanged.
Maybe selling cars without fenders isn’t such a great strategy after all.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
This post has been updated to note that the Dow Jones story cited has been corrected. Originally, it said that the Tribune Co. has plans to cut “another 800 jobs in 2006,” but has been corrected to say “Tribune Co. will not cut 4% of its workforce in 2006. The company will cut a total of 900 jobs in 2005, of which 800 jobs will be in the publishing unit.”