What began as a trickle is becoming a flood.
Another L.A. Times top editor bites the dust? Didn’t I just read that news? As news reports have pointed out, that’s the fourth Times top editor or publisher to depart in three years. But, amazingly, it doesn’t really surprise us anymore. We’re inured to the bad news the industry is rolling off its own presses.
James O’Shea’s departure, caused by his refusal to accept new Sam Zell-era budget cuts, is of course just one of many across the country. When, not long ago, Times publisher Jeff Johnson stood up to Old Tribune management, refusing further cuts, he found himself forced out but his heroism was praised. When Times Editor John Carroll made his own public point, taking his leave as he decried the loss of resources needed to create substantial community journalism, he received kudos.
I trust, given the times, O’Shea’s lauding will have a shorter half-life, though his parting cri de coeur is worth distribution:
“Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers,” he wrote, “so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and Web sites.”
Yes, indeed, but the "our" is what's in question now. Editors are losing custody of their papers.
The L.A. Times, of course, has long been the #1 daily in my little state of California, home of the world’s sixth biggest economy. The #2 daily has long been the Mercury News, once the pride of Knight Ridder and another one (with the Times) of America’s top 10 papers. No longer. (Just wondering: Is anybody still even doing these rankings and, if so, properly updating them given the quality declines we're seeing?)
Just before O’Shea’s ouster was announced, the Mercury News was itself going through a wrenching change.
Carole Leigh Hutton and George Riggs, two long-time Knight Ridderites brought into the MediaNews fold, fell out of it, within a week of each other. Carole Leigh had been on the job for just seven months. She had moved into it as a reliable, trusted hand when Merc News editor Susan Goldberg escaped to the relative security of Advance’s Cleveland Plain Dealer.
But the Mercury News has received so many body blows – earlier and disproportionately greater Internet competition draining readers and ad revenues, morale-sapping buyout after buyout and even inexplicable million dollar-plus budgeting “errors” – that the papers’ fortunes seem to tumble backwards in time. Reading it each day is like journalistic sci fi, seeing a paper launched into top status starting back in the ‘80s fall helplessly back to its small-town roots. Garish design, embarrassing writing, one-source stories and four-page sections that look like shopper editions too are new hallmarks of the once-proud paper. Meanwhile, by one Comscore 2007/2006 comparison, MercuryNews.com's lost 30% of its unique visitors year over year.
Brought in to right the sinking ship, Hutton lost the confidence of Media News execs when she urged a radical re-shaping and reconfiguration of the product – into three sections – and lost her job in the wink of an eye. Riggs, whom MediaNews had promoted to his post as head of MediaNews’ California Newspaper Partnership from his post as Merc publisher, left soon after, apparently just having had enough.
The changes at the top we’re seeing aren’t limited to the old, tired print side of the business. Wes Jackson, an early online leader for Belo, left his post as head of Belo Interactive last year. My sources tell me he’ll soon be followed by several other online newspaper business heads. The reason: frustration with the pace of change and empowerment.
So nobody’s happy, and the exodus we’ve so far seen is only prologue. Among buyouts, layoffs, early retirements and executive ennui, the numbers departing will only increase.
The most interesting question emerging in 2008 is where will they go.
There are 200,000 or so students in college-level journalism and mass communications (though news editorial work is one of the smaller concentrations here, among advertising and public relations), and many newspaper émigrés are finding havens in academe, planning on training the journalists of tomorrow for jobs that may well not exist. But there are only so many academic positions.
Anyhow, sick as they are of the industry’s downturn, journalists at all levels have a love/hate relationship with the craft. Once a journalist, always a journalist, on some deep level.
So maybe the metaphor here is two roller coasters passing in the night.
One reached its apex at the turn of the century, when newspapers were fat. That coaster is headed for the historic registry, and it’s started its downward descent, picking up speed each month.
The second is making painfully slow clack-clack-clack noises, climbing fitfully, rung by rung, giving both its passengers and spectators a wonder of whether it can keep climbing. In its first "national" car are such pioneer passengers as ProPublica, The Politico, HuffPost, Talking Points, Salon, Slate and the brand new Politicker, among others. Its second "local" car holds, among other others, the tiny staffs of CrossCut, Pegasus, MinnPost, the New Haven Independent and VoiceofSanDiego -- and few pilot passengers with unannounced business plans.
Two coasters. Uneven velocity. Treacherous track. And power supplies that can’t be called uninterrupted.
How many of the journalists jumping out of the descending coaster will make the leap to the slow-moving ascending coaster. How many of them will bring some funding with them? How many will find new ways to practice the craft?
In the amusement park that modern news media is becoming, these will be two rides to watch.