Downsizing Newspapers and Pretending to Improve Quality

WANDERINGS, with Walter Brasch

Executive management at the Allentown Morning Call recently laid off more than two dozen persons from its newsroom, most of them veteran reporters drawing higher salaries. Management plans to cut 35–40 positions, according to a letter sent by publisher Timothy Johnson. The cuts are about one-fourth of the news staff. The remaining reporters are being told to write more stories under the same deadline constraints. Coverage of local meetings has been put into secondary importance; bureaus have been combined. The Morning Call is not alone.

About 85 percent of all dailies with more than 100,000 circulation, and about half of all dailies with circulations under 100,000, have cut the number of reporters and editors, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. During the first half of this year, newspapers laid off or froze more than 6,500 news positions. This was the biggest loss in three decades, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

With the layoffs, news quality has suffered. A newsroom filled with younger reporters—they aren’t paid as much as the senior reporters who were terminated or laid off—leaves a newspaper vulnerable to a newsroom with less knowledge of the community and how to gather, report, and write news. Almost no newspapers have proofreaders. About 40 percent of all newspapers report they have fewer copyeditors today than just two years ago. No proofreaders means more typos. Fewer copyeditors means sloppier copy, more factual error, and a lot more stories that are incomplete.

During the past few years, newspaper owners demanded and were getting at 20–40 percent profit, among the highest for any industry—and that includes Big Oil. With newsrooms and the news product already lean, the owners kept taking and taking.

And now there’s an economic recession. Subscribers are questioning their annual $150–250 investments. Businesses are folding, and the ones remaining are reducing newspaper advertising budgets.

Go to any journalism conference, and you’ll see a lot of hand-wringing. Reporters and editors are whining about how bad it is. They rightly blame owners and publishers. But, they also blame readers for accepting abbreviated news drops from TV and myriad cable networks. They whine about the Blogosphere and Internet domination. They complain about the short attention span of their readers. It’s this and it’s that. And so, with the help of $500 an hour consultants who eruditely harrumph their grandeur of divine guesses, they make cosmetic changes. They follow the 24/7 cable networks and increase entertainment and gossip. They give us more syrupy “feel good” news. They say they want to be “relevant.” Editors at the Morning Call, like many newspapers, are placing light features and how-to columns higher than hard news. Some changes improve the product, most are band-aids. A decade ago, the American Society of Newspaper Editors published a study that revealed Americans wanted less, not more sensationalism, gossip, and celebrity news. Apparently, no one was listening to the people.

The system is broken, and it’s the owners’ fault. They have already “maximized profits” by low salaries and minimal benefits, giving veteran reporters “involuntary terminations,” significantly reduced employee education programs, cut the number of pages, reduced the page size, and increased the use of material provided by syndicates rather than local news staff. These latest cuts are deep into the muscle. Owners of the Morning Call, like owners at hundreds of other newspapers, apparently believe that reducing quality improves profits. The owners of the newspaper industry need a course in Basic Journalism 101.

A quality news product will increase circulation.

Increased circulation will bring more advertising.

More advertising brings better profits and allows even more news quality.

Cutting reporters, benefits, employee training, and news coverage is not the way to save newspapers.

[Walter Brasch, an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, a syndicated columnist, and author of 17 books. He is former president of the Keystone (Pennsylvania) professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and is currently president of the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available through amazon.com and other stores.]

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About Walter Brasch

Columnist, author, journalism professor. Latest book is BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW: STORIES FROM THE REVOLUTION, a look at the couterculture from 1964, as seen through the eyes of a "flower child" who is now middle-aged--and of the reporter who covered her story. The book is available through Amazon.com . . . Check out website, www.walterbrasch.com for further info. Or, just write me: walterbrasch@gmail.com
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One Response to Downsizing Newspapers and Pretending to Improve Quality

  1. I like my local paper less and less with every “improvement”. The owner (Dean Singleton) picks the local people, but doesn’t have time to manage them. It looks to me like there is plenty of room to do a better job than I’m seeing. On the other hand I’m an older guy and I can’t fool myself into thinking that most of my community is nearly as concerned about what is available to be read, in hand, with their morning coffee as I am.