Nice To Know You Are Appreciated

Fifteen editors have been shown the door at the Baltimore Sun — part of the  Tribune Co’s cost-cutting measures. In the case of the fifteen they really were shown the door with security guards ready to escort them from the building.

I had sympathy for Sam Zell when he tried to explain a few months ago to the Tribune bureau in DC that they had too many reporters in the capital. I know that comment will make me unpopular among old media hacks. But the plain fact is that US newspapers have on the whole been overstaffed for years by comparison with UK and European papers — and please don’t tell me that the quality of the US publications is better (Not that I am saying that all European papers are superior to their US counterparts). I still think that the Tribune’s flagship paper in Chicago is over-staffed, even after the recent cuts there. After shedding 53 editorial positions, the news-gathering staff remains at 430. That is a huge number by comparison with the Daily Telegraph or The Times in London.

However, showing good staff the door in the way that happened today at the Sun is tacky.

But the question is why was the Sun not reformed and changed years ago. Of all the metropolitan papers in decline, the Sun has been the most extreme in terms of huge circulation losses and fall-off in advertising revenue. It was clearly heading for demise. And to be frank the paper was increasingly thin and unreadable and boring. It didn’t give you a sense of Baltimore nor of the rapid social and economic changes that have altered the face of the city. The Sun had poor leadership — as with many of the metropolitan newspapers it sat on its laurels and enjoyed its virtual monopoly. The managements of US newspapers have been lacking in vision and innovative thinking, as much as the managements of the US car companies.

What is doubly sad about Baltimore, though, is that belately it did have a challenger: the Baltimore Examiner, which was a zesty newspaper that was enjoying significant increases in advertising revenue. That paper was closed by its ownership in favour of keeping the Washington Examiner open, a paper that is finding it much harder than its sister did in drumming up advertising revenue and a publication that can’t hope to see off the Washington Post or undermine a revived Washington Times.

Who Survives?

An interesting take on who might survive through the economic crisis and beyond among the online news and commentary sites from Matt Pressman at Vanity Fair . His points are fair and his comments about news aggregators such as Drudge and Google News are spot on: what happens to them when content is not free and content providers hide behind a pay-barrier? 

But he could have been more cutting about some of the news sites owned by newspapers. As my friend Jay Byrne, president of v-Influence Interactive, pointed out in a blog a few weeks ago, the newspaper industry has been lacking in practical development sense. I quote him: “What many newspapers don’t realize is that they have yet to perfect the basic mission of successful Web publishing: Link relevant content with relevant audiences for increased ROI opportunities for relevant advertisers. When they do, they may staunch their current hemorrhage and – gasp – perhaps make money online.” 

I think Jay in the blog could have added that newspaper sites are not good at bringing together, too, videos, blogs and Podcasts with text. And many newspapers are employing young hacks who just don’t write well.

 What is missing from Pessman’s piece is a wider viewpoint of producers and how knowledge-based organizations such as universities, NGOs, think tanks and charities, are beginning to be news and commentary platforms in themselves and are thriving in the world of RSS feeds. Of course, they don’t have the same kind of commercial constraints that for-profit news-sites and agrregators face.