Starvation diet threatens to kill journalism

by Bernie Lunzer, Secretary-Treasurer, The Newspaper Guild/CWA [Guild Reporter]

We always knew we didn’t need a rocket scientist to tell us that reducing newspaper quality reduces newspaper readership, but now we have the scientists, too. A new study from the University of Missouri journalism school, surveying 10 years of relentless newsroom cuts, has concluded that newspaper owners are starving us into oblivion.

Although the study demonstrates that spending money on news “product” actually benefits profitability, one of it authors said in a radio interview that she has little hope that owners will listen. As she related, news management culture is stubborn, used to easy money and unwilling to invest in research and development. I wish this were news.

What upsets me most is that no one’s discussing any of this with us. No other industry has such a talented and loyal workforce as newspapers. Instead of getting laid off, we should have been the first invited into a dialogue on what comes next. We’d still be facing the huge challenge of the web, but we’d be much further along in the transition.

Gannett Corporation’s embrace of its new “information center” approach is a case in point. Bold and “platform agnostic,” the centers are to focus on new ways of organizing information and distributing it to “customers” any way they want to receive it. The approach recognizes that people will get their information in multiple ways throughout a day. Perhaps most importantly, implicit in the approach is a refreshing new willingness to listen to readers and customers, reflecting the interactive nature of digital media that everyone now expects.

Despite the digital gloss, some of what’s being implemented looks disconcertingly familiar. Most notably, Gannett wants to link editorial content to specific advertising products which are then targeted to identifiable audiences—and it apparently wants news writers to provide that content.

Special advertising sections are not new, even if Gannett is wrapping them in new packaging. In the late ’70s and early ’80s many Guild units bargained “advertorial” writers into existence, defined as advertising department employees whose job it was to generate news-like copy to go into special advertising sections. The specialized positions satisfied a corporate need need for “product” without breaching the historic wall between news and commercial operations.

This time around, however, the information center idea is being implemented with little or no discussion with the workforce. When Guild leaders in Indianapolis expressed ethical concerns about the idea and asked to negotiate its details, they were told management would go ahead without them. And when our Rochester local recently expressed the same concerns, the publisher allayed most of its concerns but added that as far as newsroom staff writing ad copy is concerned, “if you’re defining ad copy as articles coming from our custom content department, I would argue this is not ad copy.” The “custom content department” is the one responsible for preparing advertorials and special sections that tie editorial content directly to its ads.

This leaves us in a tough spot. We shouldn’t look askance at any new work, and the recommendation from TNG-CWA is for locals to take any and all work possible. We’d not only like to see the layoffs stop, we’d like to see real growth and new investment in newspapers, which is what the Missouri study underscores as essential for strengthening the industry. But management must sit and work with us to understand the implications of such changes. Destroying the credibility of current news content won’t move the ball forward. The credibility of print media is second to none, earned through decades of diligent hard work, and we the workers can’t simply sit back and watch it destroyed in a thoughtless embrace of new technologies and an unseemly scramble to preserve unsustainable profit margins.

We know that blogs, citizen journalism and opinion-oriented “news” media like Fox News are radically shifting the landscape, as are all the new Web 2.0 ideas that continue shaping interactive digital information. We’re not above writing advertising copy, which is a craft unto itself, and we understand the need to be open to new ideas. But we cannot be passive bystanders as the very essence of our craft is drained of all meaning.

That’s why TNG-CWA is currently working on a project with the University of Maryland to survey our members about the future of our work. The survey and its findings will be featured in a university-sponsored summit this fall that will include workers and managers in a discussion of what we’re about and where we’re headed. You’ll soon be hearing much more about this.

The future is coming, like it or not, and if we don’t take an active hand in shaping it, be assured someone else will. And that means we need we need everyone’s input.

article originally published at http://www.newsguild.org/gr/index.php?ID=3660.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey