Saturday, May 26, 2012

More stress in store for Sun-Times?

Growth plan to strain overworked newsrooms

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I read with a fair amount of skepticism Lynne Marek’s story in Crain’s Chicago Business about Michael Ferro’s plans to make the Sun-Times and its ragtag fleet of daily and weekly suburban papers the nation’s top local newspaper.

Ferro is chairman of Wrapports LLC, which purchased Sun-Times Media in December and, more recently, the Chicago Reader. Some believe the company is planning more acquisitions.

Marek’s story, under the headline, Sun-Times owner: ‘We’re not buying the Trib,’ laid out how Ferro said he intends to boost the media company’s subscriptions by 100,000 in the next two years.

I shook my head as I read, not at Marek’s reporting, but in wonder. Ferro’s plans are ambitious — beefed up sports coverage, a daily column written by celebrities with Chicago roots, a new Monday business section.

Nowhere in the story did I read anything about hiring more people to do the work. In fact, that would be counter to what is happening elsewhere in the industry.

Tens of thousands of newspaper employees have lost their jobs in the past five years as the industry suffered a stunning one-two punch:

·       Just as dinosaurs failed to adapt to a changing environment in a time of planetary upheaval, the newspaper industry fell victim to its own institutional smugness with the advent of the Internet. By the time that media companies realized their errors in this — either ignoring it or trying to force their own business model upon the Internet — they had little choice but to scramble and dash to try to find a new business model that would work online. It appears to date that few companies are doing that successfully.
·       The Great Recession of 2008 was near fatal to many publishers. Since the late 1990s, newspapers already had lost much of their revenue — classified advertising — to online rivals like Craigslist, which offered the same service for free. The recession, which followed one as we entered the new millennium, prompted advertisers to cut back. For some papers, it was too much: They simply closed. For others it was ugly —round after round of layoffs that were desperate bids for survival.
Ultimately, most papers these days have far fewer journalists doing far more work.

I can say from experience that journalism never has been a lucrative profession — except for the owners. So those who remain and were underpaid to begin with are more overworked than ever. I’m assured that’s just as true today at the Sun-Times publications as anywhere else.

Sadly, the cuts have been hell on newsrooms at multiple levels. Fewer reporters means they must scramble like seldom before — because each paper still has to have solid news coverage to remain relevant — both to print and online readers.

Assignment editors, who should be coaching writers, planning and assigning stories and directing news coverage, have been forced into broader rolls with more varied responsibilities. Consequently, there is little time to coach young reporters to become better information gatherers and better writers, let alone time enough to ensure their stories are ready for the copy desk.

Quality control is another great concern. Many newsroom casualties have been skilled copy editors — the people who ensure the reporters’ stories have names spelled correctly, that punctuation is in order, facts are correct, headlines make sense. Quality is expected but virtually invisible; lack of it is jarring and can push readers away. Seriously, can you trust a paper that fails to spell correctly the name of a four-term mayor? Failing to take the time to sweat the “small stuff” like spelling and punctuation reflects poorly — and detracts from the paper’s credibility — on coverage of greater issues.

With ever-shrinking copy desks, fewer sets of eyes are looking over each story. That greatly increases the likelihood of mistakes slipping through. Consider, too, that a copy editor who 15 years ago was editing, say 20 or 25 stories in a day, when workloads were considered tolerable, may be looking at twice that number of stories today. I stress the use of the term “looking at,” because with that kind of expectation, true editing cannot be taking place on each story. I worked under such conditions in 1990, when I coined the phrase “spray-and-pray editing” — meaning you sprayed your eyes over the story and you hoped to high heaven that you would catch all the mistakes.

The same is true of page design and graphic art. Instead of unique and compelling news and features presentations each day, many papers are relying on templated pages, where stories and photos are dropped into slots. That takes away much of the designer’s creativity and makes the job an assembly line kind of drudgery.

These kinds of work conditions breed mistakes.

I heard a newspaper executive in Cheyenne once describe newspapers as the impossible product from the outset. No other product sold anywhere, he said, has its content put together from scratch every day, and with each day comes a completely new list of ingredients, a completely different recipe and a completely different package design. That makes newspapers a unique, daily miracle to begin with, he told me at that time, which was about two decades ago.

Certainly he was talking about the printed product, but the same is true in many ways today about the news websites — new ingredients, new recipes daily.

Imagine if candy bars were made the same way, he said. But of course, if you scrimp on the ingredients or in their preparation, they might not taste as good. Then, when your fan base diminishes, you must cut back somewhere else, and the same thing happens, so you cut again, and again, and again. Soon, that candy bar tastes like crap, and no one wants to buy it.

That, in my view, is the hole many — not all, but many news organizations have been digging for themselves. They have been killing their quality, their own relevance in the communities they serve. It is no wonder that fewer people desire their declining level of service.

Yet here is Mr. Ferro telling a lunchtime audience at the Chicago City Club that he is going to add new features, new sections — and more work — to an already overburdened crew.

I wonder when they — my former co-workers who, unlike myself, survived the layoffs — will start to break. Will I start hearing of heart attacks, strokes and forced retirements?

Or will Ferro and his Wrapports investors step up with some relief for my ex-colleagues?

I hope but am skeptical that the latter will prove true.

In the meantime, I scour the online job boards with growing desperation. I want to work again, full-time and for at least a living wage. So I hope and I pray. But each day, I watch as the industry continues to languish and I wonder if the answer to my prayer is no. Each time I ponder that question my hope fades a little more, my desperation grows, and the seeds of bitterness begin to take root.

I am too young to be feeling this way.