Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pain, potential and paywall at Sun-Times Media

Several developments this week were mixed signals for me about my former employer, Sun-Times Media.

The first was that the company had cut three more employees in the Chicago office, according to a Crain’s Chicago Business story posted Monday, Dec. 5. My count stands at four — Tinley Park lost one person as well.

That particular story brought on a sick feeling in my gut again — I thought I’d be immune to it by now, watching wave after wave of cuts over the course of several years. Scores of people were hit leading up to my involuntary departure a year ago on Dec. 2. There have been many more since.

I inferred from the Crain’s story that the reporter found eliciting information from CEO Jeremy Halbreich characteristically difficult — he declined to say how many employees had been let go, whether they were all editorial or other departments. He also declined to tell Crain’s how many employees remain at the company. There were about 1,800 in 2009 when the late James Tyree and his group of investors bought Sun-Times Media.

By the way, at the time his group purchased the company, Tyree said he believed he could preserve 1,800 jobs. Obviously, he was wrong.

But Halbreich’s unwillingness to share information — in earlier Crain’s stories, he has noted that Sun-Times Media is no longer publicly held, meaning he did not have to be forthcoming with details — is symptomatic of an industry that has grown far too arrogant for its own good, and this amid what are humbling times.

There is an irony long apparent in the industry that journalists push hard for the free flow of accurate information that “the public has a right to know.” Yet when newspaper companies are asked to provide that same kind of free flow of information about themselves, information readers and advertisers as customers have a right to know, there is a stony wall of silence.

Perhaps part of that is fear that someone might have the gall to ask legitimate questions, like “Why are you charging 50 percent more for a paper that’s a quarter the size of what is was 10 years ago?” Or, “There’s not much news here — just a lot of press releases and a real story or two. When are you going to give my community the full coverage it deserves again?”

I suspect Halbreich and others like him at other news companies are afraid to spill the beans that perhaps they simply do not know. They might be forced to own up to the truth that perhaps, just perhaps, they are in desperation mode, trying their best to keep the company afloat long enough for the tide to turn. At this point, he would not even tell Crain’s whether, after the draconian cuts the company has made in recent years, the company has turned a profit.

That’s a key point Crain’s should keep asking about. Tyree and his investors, in their original plan in purchasing the company, expected to lose money in year one and perhaps into year two of the sale. But by year three, our newsroom in Aurora was told, we would be turning a profit. The bosses who led that meeting seemed to imply an “or else.”

My hope is that Halbreich truly is on to something that will not only stop the company’s descent into the digital and economic maelstrom that has shaken the industry so thoroughly over the past 15 years, but also will allow it to emerge stronger, savvier in the new world of digital media. That would be a pleasant surprise. Indeed.

Apparently, Halbreich has not heard anything from the group and had little to say except he views it as reason for optimism that the company is turning around. I have to wonder if those who remain — those who watched us haul boxes of belongings from our desks knowing they could be next, also aware their workload would increase, immediately — believe the company is turning around.

Twinge of optimism with paywall

I am not convinced that paywalls will prove to be the panacea for newspapers’ financial woes. There are too many problems — holes, for one, but more importantly that readers having been getting their news content for free for quite some time.

That said, the paywall pricing Sun-Times Media announced this week, as reported Tuesday by Crain’s Chicago business, is quite reasonable — although I think the company’s print subscribers should pay nothing extra for access to online content. They’re already paying far more than they should for the printed product.

I half expected this — it was not difficult to conclude that the Daily Herald’s decision to implement a paywall this fall could spark a trend. It will be more interesting at this point to see if the Tribune follows suit — or, for that matter, any of the radio and TV stations that also publish news online.

Time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ve been behind on my blog in recent weeks, largely to busy-ness associated with too  many part-time jobs and the constant search for additional ones or full-time work.

That front has a promising development. I will learn more on Friday.