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Friday, April 03, 2009

Beginnings and Endings at the RTD

The top story on the Richmond Blogosphere yesterday were the sea changing job cuts at the Richmond Times Dispatch. These were not just matters of speculation and interest to me. These were coworkers, friends and acquaintances and their family members, some of whom learned they were unemployed by showing up to work yesterday. I know that newspapers and other industries don't exist to provide lifetime employment and that other industries have collapsed completely as have their jobs and pensions. Not working or writing directly for a newspaper doesn't make it any easier.

Newspapers have always been a part of my life and the lives of millions. That part has grown increasingly smaller as TV, the Internet and a youth culture that doesn't care to be informed, but I have always felt newspapers were vital to almost any community worthy of the name, usually a defining part. When I was growing up in St. Louis, there was both the morning Globe Democrat and the afternoon Post Dispatch. Kansas City had the AM Times and the PM Star. In both these cities the morning paper folded and the afternoon papers shifted to the AM to become the single major daily. The same pattern repeated itself nationwide and the industry seemed to settle down for 20 years.

Then came the explosion of cable TV and the unending shift towards the Internet swallowing even radio and TV. The news industry became segmented by opinion, specialty blogs, celebrity news and fragmented reporting, but there was no one source that seemed to bring all this together, along with a sense of community like a newspaper. Now, the industry is changing and I have to go along for the ride in my back seat near the IT department. Ultimately it is up to consumers as to whether they want or need a newspaper. It's become a vicious circle, as readers disappear, revenue disappears, pages and content disappears, cost go up and more readers disappear. New business models are being pursued daily to keep up with changing technology, demographics and culture. I don't think anyone has been more aggressively promoting change than John Sarvay of Buttermilk & Molasses. To quote::

If I was to really get into a prescription for the Times-Dispatch it would be to cut more, cut faster and revolutionize FAST. Companies who spend 2009 whittling away because of in-the-moment budget woes and today's economic conditions are not likely to survive into 2010 -- I'm telling my clients that now is the time to replace incremental change with revolutionary change. It sucks for the people making the decision, for the people let go and for the ones who are left, but I believe we're in a game-changing shift in our economy, not a recessionary hiccup. Everyone's going to suffer through this transformation. The TD just happens to be a more public example than most.

There's been a bit of piling on by those who see justice and vengeance in the fall of the once proud and might, but John has been a critic, not any enemy of newspapers and knows the constructive role they can play, again.

We'd be fools not to either cross our fingers and hope the Times-Dispatch figures itself out, or to cross our fingers and hope that another publication emerges that can deliver the news and information that our community requires in order to stay engaged and connected.

Even Jason Roop at Style expressed some regret over events.

We do have compassion for our colleagues, and have spoken with many of them. It's important for a community like Richmond to have a strong daily newspaper.

and later,

We are naming several of the folks because readers (ours and the T-D's) are interested in knowing which reporters, and what they cover, will be missing from their daily newspaper. For everyone interested in this story, including Times-Dispatch staffers, the No. 1 question has been "Who." Who are we losing? As we note in the story, many of these people are veterans and award-winning writers. Their names are familiar to readers.

We can empathize with our media colleagues and indeed our own company is going through many of these painful layoffs and financial decisions, and we understand it is a difficult time for all.

We'll all be watching to see how this changes the Times-Dispatch's coverage of the Richmond area. We all have been forced to make adjustments in this incredibly shifting media landscape.

The Times Dispatch traditionally doesn't like reporting on itself, which is too bad because this is real news, important to the community, the newspaper and it's employees, which up until recent years has tended to feel like family. It feels a bit like a broken family now. Desks are empty, friends are gone and there is work needed to be done.

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Unknown said...

Hi Paul.

That last para goes a long way to explain the problem. Objectivity, or at least a serious effort at it, is the missing element. The weird thing is that this is of a piece with the similar boredom organizations have with their core business for the last 30 or so years. They have all fallen in love wit Finance as the "point" of their trades. And so, MG and other news orgs have become much like the opacity-prone institutions and entities that they're supposed to pry open and reveal to us. That's not news to the Paul Hs or Rus Wornoms or Robin Farmers, but it damn sure seems so if your name is Bryan or Rosenthal.

Paul Hammond said...

I'd hate to try to read JS Bryans mind on this, but I find it hard to think they are not affected financially and emotionally by this. I'm not even taking a position on who is at fault. I am disappointed with the way it was handled.

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