Every reporter or editor should have the experience of dealing with the news media. We are a pushy lot who ask difficult questions, often just the questions you can’t answer.
I have spent much of the past week dealing with the news media. The easiest questions came from a television reporter for KWWL, wondering what’s going on here at Gazette Communications. The tough ones came from the reporters, photojournalists and editors on my own staff.
As I did with the staff, I will tell you right away that we don’t have all the answers yet. We’re trying to be as open as possible with the staff and public as we consider changes that will fundamentally transform how this organization operates and how our staff works.
I have worked for newspapers that were making big changes and the managers kept employees in the dark until all the details were worked out. You can answer all the questions at once that way, but you damage trust and make clear that management is deciding everything in a one-way process.
Either way, it’s a scary time for our staff and leadership. David Lee, a copy editor, spoke for many of his colleagues when he wrote in his Write On blog last week, “I’m worried about my career, I’m worried about the newspaper I work for, I’m worried about my profession.”
Management has to set the strategic direction and makes the final decisions. But employees deliver the success or failure of any organization, so this week we have been informing our staff of changes that are taking shape in our company, even as we continue making crucial decisions.
I have told the newsroom staff that all of our jobs are fundamentally changing. The jobs in our new organization, including mine, won’t be the jobs we currently hold. We posted some new jobs earlier this month and will post more this week. I have told my staff the general framework of some new jobs, but I’ve asked them to help me shape those jobs.
News spreads quickly by word of mouth, so you might already have heard some of this from your friends and neighbors who work for this company. News also spreads inaccurately sometimes by word of mouth, so you may have heard wrong (some of the rumors that made it back to me were certainly wrong).
The changes we are making are no surprise: Chuck Peters, our CEO, began discussing them with the staff about two years ago, long before I showed up last June. He began blogging last April about the need to change.
Still, when you’ve been operating much the same way for 126 years, as our company has, or for decades, as many of our loyal employees have, it takes a while for the changes to sink in. They’re still sinking in for me, and I’m supplying some of the ideas.
For all of those 126 years, our success has been tied to a packaged product, a newspaper. Even though our customers like that packaged product and many even love it, they aren’t buying it because of the package but because of the content: stories, photographs, columns, graphics, editorials, obituaries, calendars, box scores, lists of information, advertisements.
If the content of this newspaper was in a different language, or if it was dictionary entries, pornography, gibberish or children’s riddles, we would have had an entirely different set of customers, or none at all.
Of course, we can present content in different ways: We can package content digitally or we can focus the content on particular niches. We can publish content in different packages – magazines such as Edge or books such as the popular “Epic Surge.”
Products come and go. The first newspaper I carried as a boy in the 1960s, the Columbus Citizen-Journal in Ohio, went out of business in the 1980s. The first newspaper to give me a writing job in the 1970s, the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, went out of business in the 1990s. I was present for the deaths of afternoon newspapers in Des Moines in 1982 and in Kansas City in 1990. But the newspaper industry has never seen – at least not in my career – as much upheaval as it has in the past year. A web site called Paper Cuts counts more than 15,000 newspaper jobs lost in 2008 and that has continued this year.
Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, filed for bankruptcy protection last month and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis did the same last week. The Detroit newspapers cut daily home delivery to three days a week.
Demand for the packaged newspaper product is falling at the same time that newsprint prices are rising and the economy that supports our advertisers is in turmoil. But demand for information content – news, photos, videos, answers to questions – is stronger than ever. The community always needs to connect and engage.
So the leaders and employees of Gazette Communications are working to reorganize into a company that can meet the information demands of the future and continue connecting and engaging the community effectively.
Products come and go in response to market conditions but information always remains essential to the community. So we are developing a new organization that separates content from products.
We will have a separate operation, which I will lead, to gather information content and publish it digitally in large quantities without regard to the limitations of packaged products. We will work out ways to tag the content and make it easily searchable, so you can quickly find what you’re looking for or browse by topics of interest, looking for nothing in particular.
Another operation will manage a portfolio of packaged products such as The Gazette, GazetteOnline, Hoopla, Edge, Penny Saver and IowaPrepSports.com. Those products will draw heavily on our information content as well as content from other sources. They will manage those products in response to changing market conditions.
Other parts of the company are organizing to provide production services or to focus on sales, distribution or customer care. No one is unaffected. We are committed to creating an entirely new media company, focused on and structured for the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Some of the newsroom staff will work in information content, others in product management, but all of our jobs are fundamentally changing.
Even as I sympathize with employees in turmoil who want quick answers to their questions, I am excited about our plans to transform this company and pleased with the willingness – and at times eagerness – of our staff to lead the way in developing a new organization that will serve our community long into the future.
Another staff member, Angie Holmes, wrote in her Frumpfighter blog last week: “I see opportunity and forward-thinking in The Gazette’s plan. Will everybody who works there now make it through the restructuring? Probably not. I am guaranteed a job? No, nobody is. But I do have a sense of resilience that will keep me going no matter what happens.”