the audit

Goodbye and good luck to all of us

On leaving CJR
September 5, 2014

Bob Kerr, a wry, witty writer with a mordant worldview that grows from an intimate connection to the working-class life of Southeastern New England, has been the metro columnist for the Providence Journal for about 20 years, part of a 43-year career at the paper that began not long after he got out of Marine Corps service in the Vietnam War.

But he’s more than an indispensable community voice. A cubicle-mate of mine a long time ago, Kerr was also a kindly and patient presence for some of us hotheads screaming into the phone or ranting about one thing or another. Every newsroom needs an anchor. Bob was that.

The other day, Kerr got a call from the human relations people at the paper. An HR person told him and a handful of colleagues that they were being laid off as part of a wider series of cost cuts imposed by the paper’s new buyer, an outfit called New Media Investment Group, an arm of private equity giant Fortress Investment Group. Kerr was told of his severance benefits, such as they were, and after about 10 minutes, the meeting, and his career, were over. Another 21 union staffers were let go the same day, in the same manner.

I’ve been at the Columbia Journalism Review for the last seven very, very interesting years. Today, I’m stepping aside, lucky enough to be moving to a new job (TBA). As a media reporter and critic, and through the writing of a book on the media and the financial crisis, I’ve had chance to give considerable thought to the disruption, transformation—or whatever you want to call it —that began to hit home just as I was coming on board here in the spring of 2007. Along the way, I’ve come to some rather firm (some would say blunt) opinions on discrete media issues, like, for instance, the false promise of free news and the cost of amped-up newsroom productivity requirements, among other things.

But I don’t pretend to know what’s going to work for the future of news. And after a recent tour of efforts to figure it out at places as different as Bloomberg, First Look, and Al Jazeera America, it is clear enough that they don’t know either. In fact, I don’t know if anybody knows. If someone tells you they do know, they’re probably a consultant.

But one thing I feel safe in saying is that the way to create value toward a sustainable future for the long term is probably not to treat the talent like a used Dunkin Donuts wrapper. Nor, it should go without saying, is the way forward to continue to cut a newsroom that has already been cut beyond recognition, to the point that serious readers can readily see the erosion in the breadth and depth of the daily report.

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Indeed, as if on cue, Kerr’s departure prompted a by-now familiar spasm of encomiums and laments from readers and former colleagues, but this isn’t about the future of Bob Kerr, who, I am confident, will be just fine, but the future of news.

I don’t consider myself a glass-half-empty kind of person (though some would!), but that’s where I find myself now. I’m impressed with the rise of BuzzFeed, with its highly credentialed investigative team amid an editorial staff of 170, according to a Pew report in March. Gawker has 132 editorial staffers; Politico, 170. Huffington Post has 575, for Pete’s sake, not so many fewer than the legacy news organization that I’ll be joining soon. In all, Pew (an invaluable resource that we take for granted but shouldn’t) found upwards of 468 new digital news outlets employing upwards of 5,000 journalists.

But on one level, it’s a numbers game. The same Pew report, basically optimistic in tone, also was careful not to neglect the inescapable fact that the number of editorial jobs lost in the newspaper industry alone totaled 16,000 in the decade ending in 2012.

And, obviously, the losses have kept on coming. Gannett just did yet another round of layoffs. On August 15, after a bad second quarter that included disappointing new-product launches, The New York Times Company’s chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and its CEO, Mark Thomson, issued a memo that promised both “significant investment and significant cost savings,” leaving the staff bracing for a new round of job cuts. A Times spokeswoman says the memo was part of continuing efforts to inform the staff about the company’s finances, and that its substance was in keeping with past statements; she declined to comment on job-cut rumors. Meanwhile some significant fraction of the 32,000 jobs lost in the magazine business has been in the news business, according to Pew.

It’s worth remembering that despite the digital growth and legacy deterioration, all the new digital jobs put together still amount to a single-digit percentage of the nation’s editorial infrastructure; newspapers alone still employ 38,000 and local TV, which remains persistently profitable, around 27,000.

One can point to ProPublica and other new outlets producing dozens, or even hundreds of longform narratives and investigations. But I would respond with numbers showing a drop-off in the publication of longform at the top four dailies over the past decade alone amounting to thousands of stories a year. Even if old media wasn’t your cup of tea in the first place, a net reduction of thousands of news gatherers, photographers, and editors can only be seen as what it is: a net reduction in public knowledge.

Almost as important, it’s where the jobs are distributed. Where they aren’t is the statehouse, city hall, the Washington bureaus of regional and local papers that used to cover local Congressional delegations, school boards, police departments, and so on. Pew, relying partly on our own invaluable Guide to Online News Startups, does note that the 438 smaller outlets include many outlets covering local communities, including the 117 members of the Local Independent News Association. Still, it’s partly a numbers game, and the total editorial staffers among them amount to 1,900, or 4.4 per outlet. Back in the day, the Projo had about double that number in the Pawtucket bureau. Further, it is a mistake to assume that even the current local outlets are growing or are even here to stay; many of them are financially fragile.

Jay Rosen, with whom I’ve agreed and disagreed in about equal measure over the years, has long decried the pack thinking in mainstream journalism that results in, say, 5,000 journalists covering the @$#%^ Super Bowl, while issues of great public importance, the ones everyone says they care about, go uncovered.

But while many have noted that the economics of the internet have not been kind to the news business, at least to its fact-gathering function, one could also argue that it has had a distorting affect on how existing resources are allocated, exacerbating the duplication problem Rosen identifies. Before, newspapers had only a vague idea of what was popular. The very precision of digital metrics, which document popularity to the last keystroke, has had almost a gravitational pull on journalistic resources. As John Herrman brilliantly describes (followed wonderfully by Alex Pareene and others), even prestigious media outlets find themselves required to come up with something, anything, about something everyone is already writing about (e.g. nude celebrity photos). This media clustering around things that are already popular is not a moral failing. It is a structural problem.

For the same reason, we will never lack for coverage of popular niche areas: technology, food, sports, and the like. Bleacher Report, for instance, has a staff of 140. Google “technology news sites” or “sports news sites” and get page after page of outlets, many producing original material about basically the same thing. And I’m not even going to talk about entertainment coverage.

One could argue that coverage of niche areas—food, real estate, macroeconomics, law—is better than in the previous era, and I would agree. But niche areas are by definition not the broader public interest, just as adding all the niche audiences together doesn’t equal the public itself.

Obviously, we need to make do with the system we’ve got—a few successful startups, the odd billionaire stepping in, remorseless financial players like Gatehouse/Fortress, and legacy companies staggering around like Wile E. Coyote after he hit the ground.

But no one should kid themselves that we’re anywhere near where we need to be. Just sayin’.

See you on the other side.

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.