In a proxy statement, the company justifies the bonuses this way:

The newspaper industry continues to experience substantial change caused by the effect of the Internet and other transformational technologies on consumers and advertisers and the rapid ascent of new media businesses. From an executive compensation perspective, this business environment underscores the importance of attracting and retaining both experienced and high-potential executives, and rewarding superior individual performance that may not presently be reflected in the Company’s stock price, revenues or operating profit.

But granting executive bonuses—while cutting product quality—is exactly the wrong response to “substantial change caused by the effect of the Internet and other transformational technologies.”

Cutting the news staff, especially at this point, is not about trimming expenses. It is a form of disinvestment, of giving up on the future. This is especially disastrous at a time when the paper, very late in the game, is asking people to pay for online news via a paywall. Just when investment in the product is at a low ebb, you ask people to reach for their credit card.

We’ve seen this movie before. Newspaper companies in dire need of reinvestment, or at least to maintain current levels of product quality, instead divert resources everywhere else. At Dow Jones, excessive dividends to the controlling Bancroft family proved fatal, leaving the paper a sitting duck for Murdoch. The Washington Post Co. splurged on dividends and stock buybacks for years, then raised the white flag. Advance Publications is a story in itself, but it has the distinction of deliberately moving to a digitally focused model that made gutting newsrooms in New Orleans, Cleveland, and elsewhere, an essential part of its strategy. Read Ryan Chittum for the details there.

Even the Sulzbergers are guilty of golden parachutes and excessive dividends. As Chittum asks: “Does the New York Times Company have $24 million to spare?”

But in its defense, TimesCo. management has, much more than most, protected the newsroom, and now, not at all coincidentally, they’re making a go of it, and betting the entire company on a newsroom-centric model.

It is true that Belo manages two other papers besides, the Journal, including its flagship, The Dallas Morning-News. It is also true that Belo in 2012 swung to a small profit after years of disastrous losses due to writedowns of the value of the business, a big pension expense, and the general deterioration of the newspaper business.

The current year has been a mixed bag at best. A paywall at the Dallas Morning News was not well done, as Ryan reports this morning (UPDATE: adding link).

And all properties are experiencing sharp revenue declines, and in Providence, the situation is dire.

Here is what happened to revenue at the Projo in the last three years:

And here is what happened to circulation:

What’s more, as I noted, both metrics have fallen far faster than national averages. Circulation is the real stunner. Newspaper circulation nationally is off 20 percent since 1999. The ProJo’s meanwhile is off 45 percent, from about 165,000 to 89,000.

And as I noted in the other post, Rhode Island’s economy is worse than average, but the economy of Worcester—all of 40 miles away—isn’t that much better, and yet the Projo has lost circulation at a far faster rate than the Telegram & Gazette, which is off “only” 30 percent and is now not so much smaller than the Projo.

Point: This is not, repeat, not, the time for bonuses, for anyone, executives, reporters, or anyone else.

Every nickel diverted from the product at this point is a waste of resources. Yes, the company is going to have to come up with a plan to combat falling revenues. Either that, or sell to someone who is willing to try.

But step one: Stop eating the seed corn—and start planting it.

 

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.