This week, we’re seeing new reports of newspapers decimating their ranks of journalists, somehow thinking that that will help with their chances of survival. Newspapers in New Orleans and Alabama laid off half their staffs – hundreds of journalists – this week. At the same time, reports say the already skin-and-bones Detroit Free Press will cut even more. It’s very similar to what we have seen in radio, where big corporate owners have tried (and largely failed) to cut their way to success.
But what if another familiar industry tried this approach? Let’s say you live in a city with one full-service restaurant – a venerable and trusted institution that has served generations excellent food with the highest level of service – alongside four fast-food restaurants, as the only dining establishments in town. Ten years ago, when sit-down dinner business began to fall off because customers preferred quick meals for their busy lives, the restaurant opened a drive-through. To generate interest in the new drive-through, it gave free dinners to anyone who used it.
As revenue began to slip, the family that owned the restaurant sold for cash to a corporation that owned restaurants all over the country. The former owners moved into a mansion in a city far away and the corporate owners began to cut. Ten years later, when there were not enough cooks to keep up with orders, they cut down the menu, offering fewer choices. They cut the wait staff, which for years had focused on personalized service, so there is one server per four tables. As business fell off, corporate owners ordered lesser qualities of meat, replacing USDA Prime, and doubled the price of steaks. Workers felt overworked and underpaid but were just happy to have a job. Meanwhile, the drive-through continued to give away food for free. Business continued to fall and the corporation continued to cut.
In this case, the restaurant is the newspaper. The drive-through is the Web version of the paper. The steak is the paper itself. And fast-food, well that’s broadcast (for the record, I believe there is such as thing as good fast-food). If the restaurant seems like a business nightmare, you get the idea of what’s happening in the media business.
Why would a company reduce the quality of its product, making it less valuable to customers and seem like it has no interest in growing market share? As a wise source once said, “Follow the money.”
Public media company executives don’t get bonused on how many stories their companies break or how many Pulitzers their newsrooms win. They don’t get to keep or lose their jobs because of good or bad journalism. They are like all other public corporations – it’s all about “hitting the numbers.”
While journalists lose their jobs and communities lose their journalists, executives get paid. Case in point, Gannett, which owns more newspapers than any other company. Their CEO received $32 million to leave the company earlier this year.
Without journalists, the executives of today who cash out tomorrow may have no way of knowing when the newspapers they oversaw finally cease to exist.