Opinion

Extra! Extra! Print is dead; long live print

Perhaps you heard the news last week. The country’s largest newspaper chain, Washington, D.C.-based Gannett and owner of The Register-Guard in Eugene, laid off 3% of its U.S. workforce – or roughly 400 employees. The company also announced that it would not fill another 400 vacancies for a total job loss of 800 positions. Apparently, the mothership brought in around a billion dollars in the second quarter, but lost around $50 million. No problem; just eliminate jobs aka people.

Sadly, those of us in the southern Willamette Valley probably won’t notice any change in the R-G, even if it was affected by the losses. The paper is so significantly degraded since its decades-long record of journalistic excellence and community commitment under the Baker family. 

That’s not to say there aren’t outstanding people and journalists still working there. I was fortunate to moderate a panel at the recent Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association conference with the winners of the annual Public Service Award. For instance, Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick’s reporting on how often the city was removing people who were living in camps in parks and rights of way, and the costs associated with those actions, is an example of excellent journalism.

But it’s an outlier. Gannett’s business model is all about efficiency, not serving communities where it owns more than 250 newspapers. The papers who belong to Gannett recycle stories from the wires, essentially publishing news as a commodity. Nothing unique or differentiating. 

Gannett is no different than other large corporations and billion-dollar hedge funds who own most newspapers in the U.S. Because of this consolidation, newsrooms have shrunk considerably over the past decade. 

A Pew Research Center study found that newsroom employment in the U.S. has dropped 26% between 2008-20. It’s been reported that 360 newspapers have closed since 2019. The numbers can appear grim. There are 6,377 papers left in this country, including 1,230 dailies.

And The Chronicle, of course, a locally owned weekly that serves the people of Springfield, Creswell, Cottage Grove, and Pleasant Hill.

Gannett, like most corporations regardless of industry, has been cutting jobs since the pandemic. In 2020 it had a round of newsroom layoffs and implemented furloughs and pay cuts. The company also offered buyouts to some 500 employees. According to reporting, in November 2020, Gannett had about 21,000 employees, 5,000 of them journalists. Those numbers have since dwindled to 13,000 and 4,000, respectively.

It will be hard to ever forget the day our publisher at The Gainesville Sun in Florida called a newsroom-wide meeting. The Sun was part of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, and our coverage of University of Florida sports was a big money-maker for the company. Even while owned by The Times Co., we had a local publisher on site. 

This was in the mid-1990s and it was the first time I’d heard the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” We all came to learn that the phrase was a euphemism for reducing staff. The biggest gut-punch in the meeting was when he told us that “the newsroom is the only department at the paper that doesn’t generate revenue.” He cited circulation, sales, classifieds, etc. “But the newsroom doesn’t bring in a penny.” 

As I sit today in my office in Springfield, Ore., I look at a shelf that has an 84-page special section filled with advertising, two books, and one magazine all dedicated to coverage of the University of Florida’s national title in 1996 under legendary ball coach Steve Spurrier. The reporters who covered that team regularly worked 16-hour days, traveled with the team, generated all of the content that filled those newspapers, books, and magazine pages. It would be hard to ignore their role in the profits that came from their labor.

(As an aside, the first time I’d heard the term “EBIDA” was at company-wide meeting with the publisher of The Dallas Morning News. He was explaining why he would be laying off a bunch of people because, despite making plenty of money, it wasn’t quite what the shareholders wanted.)

“Reductions in force” were perhaps the worst part of my work experience. It’s a degrading and dehumanizing exercise. At ESPN, we worked with our management team to evaluate jobs and the people who performed them. It was important to eliminate jobs – not people – our colleagues in HR and with Legal would emphasize. Of course, it usually worked out where the lowest-performing people happened to be in the jobs types we wanted to eliminate. I don’t think anyone enters their profession with the hope that someday they’ll be able to take away someone else’s livelihood, health care, opportunities to take care of their family, etc. Sure, people are responsible for their own performance and the consequences of their actions. Still, sitting with another human in an antiseptic, small office and letting them know their entire life is going to be upended, immediately, is traumatic for both parties. 

In the weeks leading up to a big layoff conversation, there are dead people walking every day in the office; you see them in meetings, and joke with them in the break room. All with the sword Damocles hanging over their heads.

With all of that gloom and doom, it’s easy to see how a narrative like “print is dead” starts and is sustained. 

It’s just not true. 

I’ll say it again. Bad print is dying and dead. That is true, and it describes most of the daily newspapers across America that are being choked out for a variety of reasons – including corporate control of independent journalism. And greed.

The fact is, people consume relevant content – photos, stories, videos, audio in print, online, on their phone, tablet, Kindle, laptop, desktop, and 72-inch screen on the living room wall. People crave quality content that interests them. 

Story-telling about family, friends, and neighbors. Utility, such as curated lists for city meetings, music events, and more. Reporting on items of import from city government to education and issues such as homelessness and substance abuse. Profiles of stakeholders and businesses in our communities. And features on our nonprofits and the volunteers who drive them.

That’s The Chronicle’s model. And with the metropolitan daily newspapers abandoning small and rural towns, it’s a vital need. It makes the content in The Chronicle, on chronicle1909.com, and on our social media pages, truly unique and differentiating. 

Noel Nash is the publisher of The Chronicle, and a member of the ONPA Board of Directors.