What my layoff means for the future of democracy

Back when I started at Gannett in 2003, there was a lot of fuss made over mission statements and core values. Our site had several key values we were supposed to strive for in the workplace. One of them, and I’m not kidding here, was “fun.” And, even more hard to believe now, it actually was fun back then. At the risk of sounding like an octogenarian, I’m here to tell you that there used to be these vibrant things called “newsrooms,” and that these newsrooms were exciting and, yes, fun places to be – full of biting humor and a competitive drive to get it better than the other media outlets in town.

And we did! We took pride in getting first and getting it right. We were proud that we beat the television stations. We smirked knowingly at each other when TV and radio reporters ripped off our stories verbatim and read them on air. We were the best at what we did, and we knew it. And that, again, was fun.

Not only was it fun, but we were doing what we were supposed to do. It was our stock and trade to provide our community with coverage of things no other organization could be bothered to do, such as city and township meetings, school board meetings, local crime, local businesses and the like. Sure, TV can lay claim to the same, but it couldn’t come close to doing what we did. You can do a lot more in 60 pages than you can do in 30 minutes of air time, minus commercials.

You’d be hard pressed (get it?) to find much fun going on in a newsroom these days. For one, Gannett no longer even has news rooms. Years back, they decided to call them information centers, as though that was going to help anything. For two, there’s hardly anyone left in them. Empty desks abound. It’s a sea of chairs in there and as quiet and mournful as a graveyard, save for the crackling static of the police scanner. And for three, everyone’s waiting for the dangling overhead sword to fall on them.

And for those reasons, you’re also less likely to see as much news going on in these “information centers.”

There were many laid off before me. The waves started crashing in the late summer of 2008, right around the time everything else started crashing in the country as well. But unlike the recession in the rest of the world, caused by the shenanigans of big banks and questionable loans, the woes of the newspaper industry were rooted in nothing else but simple obsolescence coupled with inept leadership. Newspapers never figured out how to make the change from print to online, or to be more specific, never figured out how to transfer to an online revenue stream. We can put stories online without problem. It’s getting money from them that’s been like searching for the Fountain of Youth blindfolded at midnight in the middle of a thick fog bank.

But as I was saying, there were many who went before me. Large-scale layoffs continued with the December Decimation of 08, the Summer Slaughter of 09 and who knows how many quieter layoffs. The company got smart after a while and realized it could avoid the public relations black eye if it just cut a person here this week, a person there next week, quietly going about the business of shedding more than 38 percent of its workforce in five years. And then there were furloughs. We had one week a year off since 2009, sometimes more than one. And pay freezes. And jobs left vacant when the lucky few found another job and escaped.

It was clear to everyone left behind that the company was in full-on panic mode, whether it admitted to it openly or not. Know how to recognize this? It’s when obviously dunderheaded ideas become venerated as the one thing that will save you. It’s when names of things get changed along with empty promises that this actually changes anything.

I already mentioned that there’s no such thing as a Gannett newsroom anymore. It became a “news and information department,” and then simply an “information center.” We weren’t writing news stories anymore. We were “providing content.” I suppose these changes were supposed to signal our transition into the fabled land of online, but what did it really change? Not a damned thing. And yet, the managers kept mouthing these words like they meant anything.

Another example. A year ago, Gannett came up with the fantastic idea of getting rid of local copy editors. Copy editors are the people who take a reporter’s story, place it on a page and go over it with a fine-toothed comb to find any mistakes or inconsistencies. True, you might say that paper is going the way of the phone booth and cassette tape, so there really isn’t much need for layout. OK. But you still need someone reading the story and making sure it’s polished for print.

Instead of having local copy editors, hubs of copy editors will soon be clustered together in three centers located around the country. The thought is that in doing so, you cut down on a lot of overhead and squeeze out ever more cost from the new… I mean, information center.

Only a bean counter would have come up with this boondoggle.

I can’t count how many times I got a late evening phone call from a copy editor who wanted to find out what word I had missed, or why the number in paragraph 4 was different from the number in paragraph 11 when both numbers were supposed to describe the same thing. Or to ask me why I used this council member’s name when wasn’t it this other council member who held the press conference. You tell me – what is a copy editor in Des Moines, Iowa going to know about a city council member in Des Plaines, Illinois? Nothing. And so opens the door to greater inaccuracies and sloppier stories. Not to mention hundreds, if not thousands, of layoffs. Saves money? Sure. Makes the product better? Not even.

But it became ever more clear that cutting costs, not providing solid news, was Gannett’s only real aim. Jobs were hacked in the name of this goal. The number of pages, and the size of pages, were slashed in pursuit of cutting costs. And even as the physical size of the paper shrank, the cost to buy a copy rose.

Know what else rose? Executive pay, damn near doubling even as thousands were sent packing and revenues fell. US Newspapers Division President Bob Dickey earned $3.4 million in 2010, up 78.9 percent from the year before. Craig Dubow, the CEO, earned $9.4 million in 2010, twice as much as he got the year before.

The rest of us? Pay freezes or measly 1 percent cost of living adjustments.

Steadily and undeniably, the number of people working at the paper shrank. We had somewhere around 700 employees when I started there. When I left, it was in the neighborhood of 300. You can argue that there’s usually some fat to be cut somewhere, but Gannett had cut off so much muscle that it atrophied itself.

And like a person who has atrophied, a shrunken paper cannot do nearly as much as it did before. We used to have two public school reporters, higher ed reporter, cops and courts reporter, three business reporters, city reporter, suburbs reporters, health reporter, general assignment reporters, reporters covering arts and entertainment, sports reporters. Approximately 25 reporters in all. I tell you, it was crazy. Figure each one of them contributed one local story a day – many of them more than that – and you get an idea of the volume of local coverage there was.

Today, that same paper has eight reporters, no Living section, no local business section, a half-sized sports department. You do the math.

Naturally, this is a sorry state of affairs for journalists. But why should anyone else care?

I hear that a lot. “I don’t read the paper anymore. Why should I care?” These people often say they get their news from online blogs or wire services. And yet they fail, utterly fail to recognize that the sources of information on those sites are usually reporters like I used to be. Next time you’re on your favorite online forum where stories from around the world are posted and discussed, take a look at where it came from. If it’s an Associated Press story, unless it happens to be something that was a big national event, chances are it originated as a local story at a local paper that got kicked up the pipe onto the wire.

“I just watch TV news.” I’ll pretend for a minute that the people saying this aren’t mind-numbed Fox viewers who wouldn’t know objective reporting from a rant if it up and smacked them on the rosy bottom. Let’s say this person means local television news. It used to be that TV news stole shamelessly from newspaper reports. A few years ago, a colleague actually had a TV news reporter tell him, “Your paper is so small now that we have to do our own reporting.” Hoookay. So, good. They’re finally doing their own reporting. Now, how much information do you think they can cram into the half minute they have to tell a story? Mmmm, not much. And how likely do you think they are, with their small staff and short program, to go to your school board meeting and township trustee meeting – or township planning commission, county drain commission… you get the idea.

With fewer people getting the work done in the newsroom information center, things are going to get sloppy fast. The day after I was let go, USA Today, a Gannett paper, ran a story online about how Delta Airlines won’t allow Jews to fly their planes to Saudi Arabia. Outrage! Except for one thing: Delta doesn’t fly to Saudi Arabia. How did this embarrassment make it onto USA Today’s site? Simple. The whole thing was taken at face value from a press release issued by a guy with an axe to grind.

Shameful. There’s no other way to put it. It’s a shame that the news business has come to this, where newspapers grab at press releases to put online because there aren’t people around to do actual reporting, and where newspapers no longer lead television stations in comprehensive coverage.

It’s simple, really. Fewer reporters mean less news. Less news means less knowledge. And less knowledge means something for the nation, but what?

I know I wasn’t the only one who was told in a high school civics class that it’s a citizen’s duty to be informed in a democracy. There was a time when the news media made it possible for citizens to be informed without actually going to the city council, the township trustee, the school board, the dog catcher meeting. That day is gone. It’s flat-out gone. History. Vanished. And I don’t know that it will ever come back.

What will spring up in its place?

Blogs, so far. Just people spouting off about whatever it is they want to spout off about. (And of course, this is a blog, and I am spouting off – but there is no way I’d ever classify what I do here as news). There won’t be copy editors to catch the mistakes, or if they are, they’ll be located several states away and the person doing the reading won’t really know what they’re reading about, anyway.

Yeah, the new news. Good luck with that.


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