Gannett Spins the Hamster Wheel

It is disturbing, to say the least, to see American newspapers chewing their own legs off as they try to cope with a long-predicted but now very real collapse in their business.

Not long ago, it was the Tribune Co.’s Hartford Courant jettisoning a consumer-news columnist George Gombossy amid a welter of charges that the paper did it to curry favor with advertisers who didn’t care for Gombossy’s gung-ho investigative style.

Now the Times’s David Carr tells the story of 288 journalists and advertising employees made to apply for jobs they already had at the Gannett Co.’s Westchester County franchise, the Journal News.

This being Gannett, the reapplication process was carried out with all the tact and humanity one might expect from Bank of America’s loan-workout desk. Employees—those with sufficient need of job and the stomach for a little corporate humiliation—were made to fill out an application on the corporate Website, “Sharepoint,” then submit to interviews with what Carr reports were corporate “human resources executives pulled in by Gannett.” The employees were either handed an offer letter or their walking papers, then were left to descend to the newsroom to flash a “thumbs up” sign to awaiting colleagues, or, depending on how it went, some other hand gesture.

The idea, apparently, is that the paper wants reporters who can blog, Twitter, Facebook, video, and what have you, and this was a way to get rid of those who can’t.

Carr goes along with it:

On one level, the plan seems to make sense. Advertising revenue has dropped more than 30 percent in the last year at the Journal News. On the plus side, blogs at the newspaper’s highly evolved, highly local Website account for 20 percent of the traffic there, four times higher than the industry average, according to Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell. Redefining beat reporting jobs with blogging, video and social media baked in is arguably a plan for the long haul.

On another level, it could be yet another plan to chase to the latest fad while resorting to the oldest tactic in the Panicking News Managers Handbook: speeding up the journalistic hamster wheel to make reporters crank out more copy, faster, at the expense of depth reporting and careful writing.

I’m not sure if this has penetrated the consciousness of news executives around the country, but let me spell it out for you: In journalism, as in many things, there are trade-offs. At a certain point, as the quantity of copy increases, the quality goes down. You can practically graph it. The medium doesn’t really matter. The more time you spend blogging, Facetwittering, or, for that matter, rewriting press releases, the less time you spend reporting—talking to people, chasing leads, reading documents, and putting it in some kind of sensible order. It is kind of like physics. In fact, it’s exactly like physics. It is freaking physics.

Local newspapers have one main competitive advantage over every other medium: the ability to gather compelling local news that no one else has and present it before readers in a coherent way. Once they get it, there is nothing wrong with trying to amplify the impact via social media or blogs. (Updating: I should mention that of course it’s fine and valuable to use new media for news gathering and interacting with and learning from readers.)

But the key is to find compelling stories to tell. Random information is not going to cut it.

When Chuck Schumer shows up in White Plains to say that the “federal government must do a better job of keeping sex offenders out public housing,” are we sure it’s worth a reporter’s time to write it up, especially when we know this has nothing to do with Westchester County?

Schumer: Enforce ban on sex offenders in public housing
A recent report showed that thousands of sex offenders are living in subsidized housing nationally in violation of the rules, Schumer said.

Although none of them live in the White Plains housing units, Schumer estimated there are as many as 477 sex offenders living in Westchester, 109 in Rockland and 38 in Putnam, making it plausible they could move into such housing.

Hey, if that’s your strategy, zei gezunt. But I’d say it’s more plausible that a sex offender will move into the Journal News executive suite than the paper will win readers with stories like this:

Motorcyclists shine light on Hearts Alike


Mt. Kisco gears up for annual Sales Days

On the other hand:

Cops: Mahopac man, upset at kids on bikes, exposes himself to parents

Now that’s something to Twitter about.

The point is, bombarding readers with local trivia has been tried before by countless news bureaucrats down through the ages. It doesn’t work.

Second, this is just a guess, but blogging about it won’t help either.

Third, and as an aside, if these reporters were already working for you, what do you expect to learn about them from an application process?

Fourth, renaming the newsroom an “information center” and calling beats “topics”—that’s just pitiful.

Fifth, Carr’s rationalization for this costly and demoralizing maneuvering by is a non-sequitur. Yes, advertising is off 30 percent in a year. But the fact that the “highly evolved” Website accounts for 20 percent of the traffic there, “four times higher than the industry average,” according to some analyst nobody ever heard of, does not mean there’s any money in any of this.

The money’s still in print.

And nobody knows how to support a newsroom of any significant size with online content, let alone by blogging or media socializing.

Everyone wants to try it every way but the hard way. How about just putting out a great local news report and going from there?

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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.