Friday, January 12, 2007

Falling Off the Globe

Our plump doyen of local news and noise continues to mumble its way into a kind of dementia of journalism. The latest confirming diagnosis was that it and its related New England operations would dump about 5% of staff in a combination of buyouts and outsourcing.

That translates into 19 Globe newsroom and opinion jobs. The newsroom there -- for the moment -- is already down to 412 employees. The 125 cuts hit mostly the New England Media Group's Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Some advertising and finance jobs will be outsourced. The whole downsizing starts this month and should finish by April Fool's Day. Affected employees with 10 or more years will get the buyout offers and outsourced ones will get a similar severance.

Not Really Fired

The best spin seemed to come in the Globe's own coverage. It quoted Executive VP Alfred S. Larkin Jr. as, "Our expectation is we will be able to accomplish our goal without resorting to layoffs." That's in the whoop-de-ding class. Then again, Larkin gets all the plum jobs; he was the poor sucker who had to fess up for the division when it wrapped its paper bundled in confidential subscriber info and distributed them.

It's telling that they tucked this tale of woe on the bottom of the business section front, as the parent company put it in their media and advertising section. The W&T were similar. Even the Boston Herald, with no particular glee, published what it says were the related management memos.

Why Are They Here?

It's sort of just about money. Circulation from last year was down 7% to 386,000 at the Globe and 11% to 89,000 at the T&G. Subscription and per-copy prices don't begin to cover the costs of creating and distributing the papers. However, they are the basis for the real money, by being the measurement for advertising rates.

Wait, you might say, aren't the new realities favorable for media profit?
  • Doesn't boston.com cost next to nothing -- repackaging existing work and raking in Web ads?
  • Didn't the Globe and the T&G already hack a bunch of folk and trim operations not too long ago?
  • Hasn't the Globe already eliminated expensive stuff like full-sized format and foreign bureaus?
Of course, but more telling is that these and other newspapers have had decades to prepare for and prevent such problems. Phenomena like Internet, radio and cable news didn't appear in the past 12 months to surprise these folk.

Sure, it's a big challenge to compete with faster news, especially the low-demand LITE versions. Gen-X and Gen-Y folk didn't grow up reading newspapers or much of anything. The same teens and adults who can't make change without a cash register to calculate it avoid the printed word when they can. The last figure I saw from Editor and Publisher pegged the average age of newspaper readers at 55.

This saddens those of us who grew up not only with TV, but getting our news from the several local rags each city had. We moved every couple of years when I was a kid and we got two or three of the local papers, including the closest real city if necessary. For example, in Chester, Virginia, we got the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Washington Post. In New Jersey, we got the Herald-Tribune, the New York Times and the Plainfield Courier-News. In this house, both adults were reporters and we still get multiple newspapers, as well as hitting numerous online outlets. We, in other words, are freaks by today's standards, atavisms at best.

What About New Media?

So, how is it that the local papers and Mama Times didn't get it? The most cursory observation of organisms, animate or corporate, teaches the primal lesson of adapt or die.

Before looking at the adaptations like boston.com, consider newspaper economics. There is a well-deserved reputation for being arrogant skinflints on the publishing side. With few exceptions, like the NYT, papers have always underpaid staff. The reporter/editor union, the Newspaper Guild, exists not to bedevil the honorable publishers, but in reaction to them.

Unlike most manufacturing and distribution operations, newspapers are relatively cash positive and have good margins. They don't have to stock and store goods that go bad in the truck or on the shelf. They don't have to keep warehouses filled with accurate estimates of what different outlets need. They don't even compete with a large variety of similar vendors. In general, they are cash rich, getting their ad and subscription income soon after or even before the issue appears. Unlike groceries with margins in single digits, papers have them in the high teens or low twenty percentages.

It's not software, but it's a living.

One interpretation of what's happening at the local papers and nationwide is that publishers can't and won't accept that their business is just less profitable than they so long accepted and expected. The Globe was at least honest enough to include remarks (very bottom) in their piece on this from the president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, Dan Totten.

He called the cuts "corporate greed at its worst." He added, "Outsourcing efforts by The New York Times [Co.] on our beloved Boston Globe shows a lack of respect for the quality, dedication, and work ethic that Boston Newspaper Guild members have brought to their Globe jobs."

Now What?

From that angle, the publishers should adapt by accepting their lower profits for the noble goals of educating the public and being a major force for honesty, honor and freedom. Ta da.

That certainly is in the fat-chance/Pollyanna class. The parent company is publicly held and capitalist. It says up front that its duty to shareholders is profit. They will put their money elsewhere, leaving the Times and its unruly children without cash otherwise.

The other half is what about that Web and previous cost cutting and hard-copy enhancements? If CNN, Fox and various Net news sites make a buck, what the devil's the problem here? Can't boston.com dovetail with the print version and do the same?

Unfortunately, this may require more wit and courage than the collective Globe folk have. With the exception of some grainy, outdated video and some god-awful quasi-blogs, boston.com is pretty much the print version in HTML and its variants. There's not enough zing for the kiddies.

The site doesn't have real or hidden entertainment -- music, animation, personal interaction. Hell, most articles don't even put in the obvious hyperlinks to make them Net enabled.

Likewise, on the print side, the Globe has only inched toward currency. It now runs color images -- 35 years late. It copies modest additions and improvements to its content from other papers.

At the same time, it has reduced the original reporting to an embarrassing level. Sports aren't too bad, but we need to look to Phoenix, blogs and even TV news for the detail and breadth the big local daily should, and used to, have.

This problem does not look insoluble. However, no one at either the local or the parent company seems to have the vision and guts required to pull the choke on this engine. A 21st Century media demigod should be able to tell them how they can adapt for growth rather than wither and die.

I suggest they put some effort and money -- and faith -- in evolution and revolution. Find and bring in a hotshot. In this case, it's metamorphose or atrophy.

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2 comments:

Uncle said...

Funny, MM, but I recall you and I working for a place that also was fond of scheduling major events for April 1. Take that as shorthand for chronic...possibly terminal...lack of vision at the Globe.

Mass Marrier said...

Ho ho, indeed. I thought about that too, and in our case, we also had a Halloween release. I don't mind punching a 13 button on an elevator, but 4/1 and 10/31 may just be looking for trouble.

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