the audit

Flack-Driven Local Coverage of a Factory Closure Fails

Fort Smith's Southwest Times Record blows it on a huge loss to the community
October 28, 2011

Whirpool is laying off more than a thousand employees in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and shipping the work to Mexico and two plants in the U.S.

So how does the local paper, the Southwest Times Record, cover the exit of one of its largest employers? With stories that read like they were written by Whirlpool’s PR department.

Here’s the lede from its story announcing the news, headlined “Fort Smith Whirlpool Plant To Close”:

Whirlpool officials are working with state and local leaders as well as union representatives to help ease the transition for about 1,000 active employees who will be affected by the closing of the Whirlpool plant in Fort Smith in mid-2012, a company executive said Thursday.

Whirlpool is laying off 1,000 local workers and shuttering its Fort Smith factory, dealing a big blow to the city’s economy. That, or something like it, is your lede.

The Times Record gives Whirlpool’s top flack the second, third, fourth, and fifth paragraphs, and then gives seven of the remaining eight paragraphs to rewriting the press release. Not one worker is quoted in the story.

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It was breaking news, of course, but that’s no excuse here, when other outlets wrote far better stories. And this later story, which leads the paper’s page one today, isn’t any better. It gets around to quoting newly fired workers, but they’re awfully positive about their newfound circumstances:

While the news of the plant’s closure upset or discouraged some workers, he sees this as an opportunity to pull together.

“Sometimes (change) opens the door for other opportunities, to grow and pull together as a family … . A lot of people to me are all about self. Communities have to pull together to make things work,” Thompson said. “I’m a Christian guy and I believe God knows what he’s doing, and with things happening like they’re happening, it’s (an opportunity) for America to grow stronger.”

Steven Stec, 52, of Fort Smith, an hourly employee in the tool and die department who’s worked for Whirlpool for more than 29 years, said he couldn’t ask for a better employer than Whirlpool.

“(Whirlpool offers) a lot of benefits, and in the line of work that I was in was in the tool and die department, we always had interesting work, always had something different,” Stec said. “Challenging, intellectually challenging, and then at the same time the pay’s been good (and) I had great insurance.”

None of those “upset or discouraged” workers, like say, a union representative, are quoted in the piece, which is disconcertingly positive for one reporting a major blow to a community’s economy. Manufacturing has huge multiplier effects, far more than other industries. That means Fort Smith not only will lose those thousand workers at Whirlpool, they’ll surely lose hundreds of ancillary jobs at local suppliers who depended on the plant and at local service providers who will suffer from the decreased spending.

This CNN/Money story doesn’t get that, conflating call center jobs with manufacturing ones:

He said the city is adding enough manufacturing jobs to make up for at least some of the layoffs. For instance, Sykes Enterprises (SYKE) recently established a call center in the city, adding 500 jobs. And in the near future, he expects the Golden Living healthcare company to add 200 jobs, and Mitsubishi Power Systems to bring 300 new positions to the town.

And good luck finding a replacement in this economy.

A local news website called The City Wire provided much better coverage of the Whirlpool story several hours earlier. Even in that early story it was talking about the ancillary impact of the Whirlpool closing, reporting that it would cost another 470 jobs, by University of Arkansas estimates. It also reports how past declines at the plant have hurt or killed other local businesses. And it takes a different tone:

The news since November 2003 has been troubling, with Whirlpool announcing numerous production cuts and layoffs that has seen employment in Fort Smith drop from about 4,600 in early 2006 to around 1,000 today.

And here’s a later City Wire story that’s much better than the Times Record‘s output. Check the tone of the lede, for one:

A gray, overcast and rainy Thursday (Oct. 27) seemed made-to-order on a day when it was confirmed that Whirlpool Corp. would cease operations at its Fort Smith refrigerator manufacturing plant.

The closure, expected by mid-2012, will mark the end more than 45 years of Whirlpool operations in Fort Smith.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette even found a union leader and dispirited employees to talk to, and put in this quote on the broader economic impact from the director of the University of Arkansas’s business-school:

“It’s obviously devastating to lose that many jobs, and from a core industry,” she said, noting that large employers such as Whirlpool develop clusters of related suppliers.

“You have the center of the cluster being pulled out,” Deck said. “The ripple effect goes through all those industries.”

The Times Record ought to take a cue from these guys and quit relying on flack-driven storylines.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.