Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Disappearing Byline Buzz

The buzz on buyouts at the Press is increasing. I had a conversation this week with some senior pros at an area PR firm, and an email from a reporter at another publication about the increasing number of Press bylines going bye-bye.

The paper, like others in the Booth chain, is losing ground financially, and is resorting to cost cutting by offering buyouts and otherwise reducing its newsroom staff by attrition.

One inside source at the Press tells me about 20 have accepted buyouts from about 30 or more offered. Another person tells me these are among the names leaving the press either by buyout or attrition: Radigan, Becker, Kirkbride, Golder, Conklin. There are likely more but it's hard to get more than snippets or hearsay. If you've heard confirmation of other Press staffers leaving, share it by posting a comment.

A few of my own comments.

One, this is a poor move. In an effort to compete, newspapers are cutting their ONLY competitive edge. Classifieds and other advertising still draws revenue, but at the end of the day, people want solid reporting. Otherwise the daily becomes a "shopper." There is empirical evidence from studies done at Michigan State and other media economics experts that shows investment in the newsroom actually increases revenue. Audiences may shrink, but they will be made up of people many advertisers seek--well-read, educated, opinion leaders.

Two, beyond the economic interest, this is bad news for PR and democracy as a whole. If PR professionals want to add credibility to their messages, the third party credibility that comes from skeptical journalists reporting is vital. Such objective, informative reporting about matters of civil society is also a fundamental aspect of democracy--a free and vigourous "Fourth Estate." The press is not singled out in the First Amendment for its right to make a profit; it is to inform the citizenry. Call me old fashioned, but it seems the press, generally speaking, has lost sight of this ideal.

Three, newspapers have caused their own trouble. They have been too market-driven as opposed to news driven. Read books by James Fallows ("Breaking the News") and Ken Auletta ("Back Story: Inside the Business of News") to see what I mean. Newspapers can't compete with video games, cable, and all other forms of media entertainment. Their key advantgage is news, local news, and well reported news. They've given up their USP--unique selling proposition. They cover concerts and recipes and seem to throw their hands up on hard-hitting news. Our own Press hasnn't sunk too low on that scale, but I fear a shrinking newsroom leads to a shrinking news hole, and news that appeals to consumers rather than citizens.

Finally, you won't see this reported in the Press at any great length. Ironic, given that former TV 8 staffer Colleen Pierson has a column about broadcast media personnel changes. This paper is a significant local organization, on the order of Trussway and Steelcase and Electrolux and Delphi. Such buyouts and reduction in newsroom workforce is of interest to not just PR pros and other media, but to the readers and community at large. But the Press will likely see this as inside baseball, and not newsworthy. That's too bad. Bylines were started in the 1930s by TIME magazine to give credibility to reporting and let readers know who was behind the stories. For the Press to downsize in silence lacks integrity and the kind of relationship they should foster with the community.

Some might say this is the inevitable reality of a changing media landscape. But ultimately, instead of this throwing in the towel and assuming that people don't care about hard news in print format, they should work harder to convince people why they should care. They should present solid news in a compelling way, and not pander to a perceived interest in fluff.

Alas, journalism is sliding from "the people have a right to know" to "give the people what they want" to "we need to monetize our various platforms through synergy." De-press-ing.

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