McClatchy on McClatchy

McClatchy newspapers cover their own demise

After Monday’s news that the McClatchy Company would be cutting 1400 jobs at its newspapers across the country, the affected papers were left in the unpleasant position of having to cover their own dismemberment. I looked at a representative sampling of the newspapers in order to get a sense of what was—and what wasn’t—initially reported.

Although The Sacramento Bee, McClatchy’s hometown paper, will lose 86 jobs, reporter Dale Kasler focused on the company-wide job reductions (“McClatchy cuts jobs 10 percent, lays off employees at Bee, other papers”), devoting comparatively few paragraphs of the A1 story to in-house affairs. Kasler, who has been on the McClatchy beat for almost ten years, absolutely killed the story, talking to McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt, Bee publisher Cheryl Dell, and numerous outside sources in a comprehensive article that really examined the financial problems besetting both McClatchy and the wider industry.

The Miami Herald, “hammered” by the most extensive layoffs of any newspaper in the chain (“Miami Herald to reduce its staff by 250”), led with the in-house carnage, not getting to McClatchy until the fourth paragraph of the 997-word story. The Herald’s John Dorschner was the only other reporter to go directly to Gary Pruitt for a quote instead of relying on Pruitt’s general press release. (“I’m an old fart, I believe in direct quotes,” Dorschner told me.) Pruitt was extremely blunt in person: “The Miami Herald’s performance has been worse than most, if not all, of the newspapers….” Dorschner’s dispassionate piece ended ominously, with Pruitt refusing to call this the nadir of the recent newspaper decline.

The Kansas City Star, facing 120 job cuts, led with news of the company-wide layoffs (McClatchy to cut 1,400 jobs nationwide, 120 at The Star), and devoted only one paragraph to the cuts at The Star. Reporter David Hayes, who declined comment, gave the story a vaguely positive spin, emphasizing the money that McClatchy will save by this “restructuring plan,” and quoting CEO Pruitt, in a press release, as calling the move “a continuing, strategic vision for successful future operations.” The article ended by noting that McClatchy shares dropped 1.8 percent on the news.

The story only merited 189 words at The Wichita Eagle, which will cut twelve jobs (“Eagle to cut 3 percent of workforce”). They’re 189 blunt words, though: The article noted that McClatchy “continues to struggle to attract advertising dollars,” quoted Pruitt’s press release on the national economic downturn, and finished by citing McClatchy’s 15 percent ad revenue loss in the first quarter of 2008.

The Belleville News-Democrat, also facing the loss of twelve positions, albeit not from its newsroom staff, led its 626-word story with news of the in-house cuts (“News-Democrat to cut 12 positions as part of corporate restructuring”). The unbylined story is well-reported, citing publisher Jay Tebbe in the first paragraph, mentioning McClatchy’s historical reluctance to lay off employees, and going to an independent newspaper consultant for his take on the cuts (“McClatchy is still viewed as a newspaper company that cares about quality,” he said).

Despite recent increases in reader satisfaction, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram will lose 120 employees, and its coverage (“Star-Telegram begins work force reduction”) centered on that “painful but necessary step.” The unbylined article, heavily reliant on quotes from publisher Gary Wortel, went out of its way to reassure readers that they can expect to remain satisfied: Although subscription prices are increasing, they’re “still nearly $2 less than the average cost of a subscription in other Texas markets.” The story ended by quoting Wortel’s confidence in the Star-Telegram’s ‘“ability to navigate to a stable and prosperous future as an integrated media company serving as our community’s most trusted supplier of news and advertising information.’”

The News & Observer, in Raleigh, N.C., led with its in-house cuts (“News & Observer to cut 70 jobs”) in a somewhat gloomy story by reporter Jonathan Cox. The News & Observer will cut its stand-alone business section and some of its specialized regional editions, and will begin sharing reporting resources with The Charlotte Observer. The paper’s publisher, like his colleague in Fort Worth, called the cuts ‘“a painful but necessary step.’” (As Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp reported yesterday, McClatchy execs issued talking points to their publishers.)

Cox, who holds an MBA, presented some interesting numbers about McClatchy’s corporate debt. “I’m sort of obsessed with financials,” he told me. After two paragraphs cataloguing McClatchy’s financial misfortunes, Cox closed with Gary Pruitt’s assertion that ‘“we’re taking this action to help ensure a healthy future for our company.” The paper’s executive editor, John Drescher, is under no such illusions: ‘“This is a traumatic day,’” he said.

The final tally? Despite small differences in tone and emphasis, most of the articles were pretty similar, with about half focusing on McClatchy’s problems and half focusing on the war at home. While most of the newspapers surveyed seemed to get their basic McClatchy financials from the same source, The News & Observer and The Sacramento Bee went deeper into the money trail. Except for The Bee and The Miami Herald, all of the papers relied on Pruitt’s press release instead of calling him directly. None of the papers thought to talk to any readers or members of the public. The Sacramento Bee was, apparently, the only paper to put the story on A1, and it shows—its coverage was far and away the best of the lot.

But, frankly, all of the reporters who drew this bitch of an assignment deserve some love, because it cannot be easy to report on the disintegration of one’s own newsroom.“As best you can, you try to separate yourself out,” said The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler. “In a strange sort of way, it’s better to cover the story than to just sit around and think about it, like everyone else is doing, and have a rotten day.”

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.