We seldom see much reporting of buyouts and layoffs these days, as some publishers concluded that the industry’s problems were only being exacerbated by its reporting on its own staff changes.
This applies to TV stations, too. In fact, they rarely report when they lose staff. Because TV news is so competitive, the last thing a TV anchor will acknowledge is that his or her station doesn’t have the largest newsgathering staff. But I have more experience with papers so….
I had to insist when we laid off journalists that we report it. (I specify journalists because I never seemed to know when people in other departments were laid off until days or weeks after it happened.) It was the one story my publisher insisted he read behind me. To him, publicizing a management decision that would reflect poorly on the business was crazy. I suspect that’s common. “Why tell customers that your business is in trouble?”
Thus, the typical statement from publishers when layoffs are announced: “We are adjusting to the changing media environment. Our coverage of the news and the community will be as strong as ever.”
Perhaps in the first wave of layoffs in 2007-8, this was true. Many newsrooms could absorb one hit. The best used it to focus their vision, move people where they were needed and get a jolt of energy with the new reality.
But after that, the idea that coverage would continue unabated was false, and everyone from publishers to editors to readers know it. More wire stories appear. Fewer enterprise and investigative stories that take are published. Agencies and organizations that used to be covered aren’t. Coverage of the environment, medicine and religion dwindles. More light community-generated content is published to fill pages.
Why does transparency matter?
Newspapers tend to be one of the older institutions in town, and they want to be of the community. Lopping off employees — many of the long-serving journalists — sends community knowledge out the door. Factual errors creep into the paper. Five years ago, the ombudsman at the Washington Post acknowledged the problem. It’s only gotten worse.
More important, readers aren’t stupid. They can tell when the product they are paying for is getting weaker. Every editor in the country should be studying how the Post and Courier in Charleston has responded to the massacre in its midst. The Post and Courier isn’t large, but it gave the community (and nation) outstanding coverage. Its journalists knew what to do and how to do it. The detail on its iconic front page is an example, but the inside the paper coverage isn’t slack, either.
There’s a great deal that is lost when newspapers cut staff. Stories and photos. People’s names and achievements. Detail. Exposure of government incompetence and corruption.
There’s no measure for it, but readers know it when they see it. Not acknowledging it won’t make it go away. But acknowledging it might help you. People rally for products and ideas they like and want to keep. Let your readers know you’re hurting and need help. See what happens: they might rally to help. If they don’t, that might tell you something.
Among journalists it’s said that you can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love you back. This is also true: Readers can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back. So, turn it on its head. Try something different. Love readers back. Talk honestly with them. Hear what they want and involve them in figuring out how to get it to them.
Think of the possibilities if you decide you’re going to love your readers. They have an open invitation into your house. They are treated with dignity and appreciation when they call, regardless of whether it’s a complaint. They get an announcement of their event published. The correction of the error you made gets prominent play, not buried. Stop messing with the comics and games.
This doesn’t mean you stop with your First Amendment responsibiities or that you back off of shining light into the community’s dark corners. That’s love, too.
The possibilities are endless.