The Week of the Long Knives

Jon Friedman of wrote a column yesterday that cut right to the chase.

Friedman’s first sentence: “This is a scary time to be a newspaper journalist.”

No kidding.

In the wake of the media’s generally outstanding performance covering the fault lines in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, came a week of unrelentingly bad news for working journalists.

On Tuesday, the New York Times Company said it will cut 500 jobs from its payroll, including 45 in the New York Times newsroom, and another 35 in the newsroom of the Boston Globe.

On the same day, the Philadelphia Inquirer announced a buy-out intended to shrink its newsroom by 75 reporters and editors and the Philadelphia Daily News said it would cut its already-decimated newsroom staff by 25. Both are Knight Ridder newspapers. Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett told her staff she had “lost sleep” and “vomited” as she tried to deal with the news.

One former top editor at the Inquirer e-mailed another: “Pretty soon there will be nothing left.”

Late Friday, the bloodbath continued, with the news that Knight Ridder, a company whose only apparent management tool is cutbacks, was eliminating another 60 jobs at the San Jose Mercury News — 52 of them in the newsroom.

And all of that came against a backdrop of the San Francisco Chronicle’s efforts to rid its payroll of 120 employees, and persistent rumors of more lay-offs and buy-outs at the Los Angeles Times, whose beleaguered editor John Carroll left in August after one too many budget battles with corporate accountants in Chicago, home to Tribune Co., the Times’ parent. In addition, Newsday, also a Tribune Co. newspaper, announced ?45 buyouts in its newsroom. That followed a buyout of 55 employees last December and another 25 the previous June.

Almost lost in the news was the discouraging fact that the Baltimore Sun, another Tribune Co. property, announced an over-the-top redesign that left it looking like a comic book and left legions of its readers outraged.

For his part, Friedman has a special concern:

“If the publishers use their financial woes as an excuse to cut back on the coverage of disenfranchised people in America, it’s going to be a very bad time to be poor.

“This is going to be a severe test for newspapers’ commitment to serving the nation’s underclass at a time when the executives would no doubt prefer to bask in the glow of the stellar reporting on Hurricane Katrina.”

He also has a word or two for the corporate moguls who engineered these cuts:

It’s hard not to be cynical, even though cynics are typically cranky, overbearing, unpleasant know-it-alls (Sorry).

But I’d argue, just the same, that media companies, which seem to care a lot more about pleasing Wall Street than Main Street sometimes make it easy….

I don’t know how reassuring it is to the world of journalism, but it should be noted that the … New York Times news release ended like this:

“The company plans to manage the staff reductions in such a way that it continues to provide journalism of the highest quality, to function smoothly on a day-to-day basis and to achieve its long-term strategic goals.”

Whew. It’s a relief to see that the Times intends to put out just as great a newspaper as always with fewer resources than ever. Now, the Times senior management team can turn its attention to climbing Mt. Everest, stopping the violence in Iraq and parting the Red Sea.

We share both Friedman’s cynicism and his concern. All in all, it has been a bloody week for newspaper journalism. And it’s starting to feel as if the bow of the ship is slipping beneath the water.

Steve Lovelady worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 23 years, and was the paper’s managing editor from 1991 to 1996.

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.