Friday, October 30, 2009

Let's hear it for toothpaste and newspapers

Here's a modest proposal for the future of journalism: consumer staples.

The New York Times brought to you by Charmin; Crest presents the Dallas Morning News; the Chicago Tribune sponsored by Gillette.

Why not hook up? The Washington Post just reported a third-quarter profit thanks to Kaplan Inc., the test-preparation company that also offers online graduate and professional degrees.

We could do worse.

Despite continued attempts to find the new business model for journalism, no one has discovered it yet. Just the other day, "some 50 of the foremost thinkers about journalism" gathered at Harvard University to ponder the future and how to make money in news, says the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.

In the end, tweeted Newsosaur Alan Mutter, who was invited to attend, "Holy Grail undiscovered."

To be sure, the "media company" model hasn't worked: newspapers, radio and TV stations, billboards, and community weeklies all wrapped up together. And all were whacked in unison as the economy melted down last year.

So diversify: General Electric Co., which has been around since the late 1800s, knows it works. Why not newspapers?

Yet the Post took some shots for the strength of its Kaplan subsidiary. Said a headline on the Editor & Publisher website, "Q3 Profit Up at Washington Post Co. -- No Thanks to Newspapers." At MarketWatch, Kaplan was dubbed the Post's Mariano Rivera, "the reliable [Yankees] closer who strides out of the bullpen and saves the day."

For the Post, Kaplan produced 60 percent of third-quarter revenue, says MarketWatch. That seems an easier way to guarantee a positive bottom line than erecting pay walls for online content or crafting some kind of donations or outside funding system to pay reporters for their work.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When up is really down

One of the conventions of business reporting is comparing current statistics on just about anything to year-ago numbers: company sales, local unemployment, radio listeners, newspaper readers.

The results tend to be more apples-to-apples since they're from the same periods of time. Comparing consecutive quarters, on the other hand, can produce a skewed picture.

Take fourth-quarter revenue for retailers, which is greatly influenced by the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday shopping season. If you tried to compare sales in that generally robust quarter to those on either side -- the so-so third or usually-slow first -- you'd get a dramatically different picture than putting year-over-year results side by side.

It's that lesson from Business Writing 101 that needed some footnoting as the media this week reported on the latest six-month circulation numbers for U.S. daily newspapers.

The data were pretty dismal: down 10.6 percent weekdays and 7.4 percent Sundays, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. Of the 25 largest newspapers, reported the New York Times, only the Wall Street Journal, Denver Post and Seattle Times showed paid circulation gains Monday to Friday. Most of the others reported double-digit declines, including the San Francisco Chronicle at 25.8 percent and the Dallas Morning News and Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., at 22.2 percent each.

A chart that accompanied the Times story in print put the gain at the Denver paper at 61.9 percent over 2008 and the Seattle paper at 32.6 percent. A single sentence in the story explained the increase: "Two major papers, The Denver Post and The Seattle Times, reported significant circulation gains after their main competitors, The Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, stopped publishing."

It was a case of year-over-year comparisons gone awry because of a material event in the interim.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Prey (or is it pray?) for editors

I can't for the life of me remember now where I read what I took to be reassurances that Journalism 2.0 would need editors.

I had just joined the ranks of unemployed journalists, and the gist of what I read was that as more and more people migrated to blogs and Web sites for their news, the typos and grammatical errors that drive print readers to the telephone to complain will also find voice online.

Whew, I thought, I do have transferrable skills.

But now I wonder whether there will be any copy editors and line editors left to migrate to the Web.

"Can newspapers afford editors?" asks a provocative headline at Reflections of a Newsosaur, a blog written by a former newspaper columnist and editor who left journalism two decades ago to become a software and Internet entrepreneur.

In it, Alan Mutter posits that "managers eager to maximize the feet on the street at their newspapers" are shifting resources from editing to reporting when faced with edicts to economize. "With the fat (if ever there were) long since trimmed from most newsrooms, the choice for many metros now may be coming down to whether to rein in news coverage or relax their traditional standards by editing out some of the editors," he says.

Echoes Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York (who blogs at, "Do we need editors?" The headline on the piece he wrote in August for the news site wonders whether editors are "a luxury that we can do without."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Move over Magnum?

Maybe I should become a P.I.

You know, a private investigator, like TV’s Jim Rockford or Thomas Magnum. They were hunks in their day, cracking tough cases, righting wrongs and wooing women. (Why can’t I recall a similar-caliber female P.I. series on the networks?)

I mentioned the career shift in jest the other day to a neighbor who had inquired about my job search.

In truth, though, I keep running across the become-a-P.I. theme in news reports (read the transcript of the radio interview or go to about 1:53 on the audio), articles and ads since I joined the ranks of Paper Cuts. (By the way, that often-cited blog, which is the unofficial keeper of newspaper layoffs, now puts the bought-out/downsized tally for journalists in 2009 at more than 14,000 -- up 1,000 since I was laid off in July.)

Of course, the shift from reporter to private eye is logical.

We journalists know how to find information: court documents, DMV records, business filings. If we can dog stories, we can dog people. It’s part of our DNA.

I'm ambivalent about repurposing those skills, though. It's not that the P.I. requirements are daunting; they aren't. I'd still prefer to stay in journalism.

But more and more, I'm finding tales of journalists who decided they had to give up their longtime careers. This one came to my attention over the weekend.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I know I'm addicted (to print)

I went cold turkey for about two days.
Then a telemarketer (working in a very busy boiler room) called and I re-upped.

You see, I had set aside the bills when they came, so the local papers had every right to cut me off from daily delivery.

One newspaper kept coming, though, weeks after my subscription had lapsed; the other was less forgiving about my nonpayment. But then one day neither of them was at their usual early-morning spots on the driveway and the front porch.

So I thought: Do I really need them?

It was sacrilege, I know, coming as it did from a longtime newspaper reporter and editor. But when you've been laid off in the Great Recession and you're among thousands of journalists in the same predicament, every expense needs scrutiny.

I had subscribed to one of the newspapers for years, even before I started working there. I had needed to keep an eye on what its business reporters were covering when I worked at a competitor.

I began getting the other paper earlier this decade. At the time, a then-assistant managing editor liked to harass me when that paper had stories my section didn't. I figured if I saw at home what I'd been beat on, I could be proactive about a second-day treatment when I got to work. (But, as I half-jokingly told the then-AME, if the crosstown rival's circulation numbers ever beat us by one, he was to blame because of the subscription I felt compelled to take.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I'm unemployed, not 'damaged'

Now that sentiment is growing that the Great Recession likely ended in June -- and ignoring the idea of a jobless recovery -- will those of us who were laid off have an easier time soon finding new work?

I sure hope so. I've been bothered by the news reports and commentary that employers are less interested in out-of-work candidates than in so-called passive ones -- workers who have remained employed and aren't necessarily looking for a new job. Companies will approach an engineer attending a professional conference, for instance, rather than combing through resumes.

A Wall Street Journal story in June (the headline said it all: "Only the Employed Need Apply") riled up one recruiter, who on her blog criticized the practice, saying it was the economic meltdown that put many of those laid off on the unemployment line, not their job performance.

"We’re so far past the point of equating the unemployed with damaged (goods)," she wrote. "This kind of short-sightedness in this marketplace makes my blood boil."

But even in the case of obvious economic layoffs -- a manufacturing division closed and its workers dismissed -- the Journal story said a client of one search firm looking for an executive wanted to talk to still-employed candidates, rather than consider the head of the closed division.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Another JOLTS jolt

The number of job-seekers per available opening continues to rise, says Heidi Shierholz (right) of the Economic Policy Institute.

Dissecting the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey -- JOLTS -- Shierholz reports that the U.S. in August saw 6.3 job-seekers per available job, up from 6 per job in July.

JOLTS, published monthly, showed the country had 12.5 million more unemployed workers than job openings in August, Shierholz said. The math played out like this: job openings down 21,000 to 2.4 million, ranks of unemployed workers up by 466,000 to 14.9 million.

While the drop in job openings has slowed, Shierholz says, "it is nevertheless getting harder every month for job-seekers to find a job as more people continue to become unemployed and openings for new jobs continue to drop."

Here's her chart showing the rise in job-seekers per available job. Note the sharp increase since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007.

(More) signs of the times

Tough times at the New York Times today, with the company announcing it will jettison 100 newsroom jobs (8 percent of staff) by year's end, either through voluntary buyouts or involuntary layoffs.

Having gone through the latter over the summer, I can sympathize.

The news didn't dissuade Times management from bragging that "These latest cuts will still leave us with the largest, strongest and most ambitious editorial staff of any newsroom in the country, if not the world."

Are you sure? After 200 cuts in the newsroom in two years? Remember the other recent nip-and-tuck, one among many moves commonly made to cut expenses without paring essential services to the bone.

FishbowlNY has the full Times memo here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's official: fewer newspaper publishers

The U.S. Census Bureau, best known for counting heads in this country, also produces an economic census every five years -- an accounting of businesses and their activities. Typically, two years after the data are collected, the findings are published.

Preliminary numbers from the 2007 economic census are starting to emerge, and I took note of this: fewer newspaper publishers existed then than in the 2002 census, and they employed fewer workers.

The Census Bureau says the U.S. had 8,375 newspaper publishers in 2007, compared with 8,603 in 2002, a drop of 2.65 percent. Workers numbered 356,943 in 2007 vs. 401,170 in 2002, a slide of 11 percent.

Despite the drop in workers, annual payroll rose: to $13.98 billion in 2007 from $13.73 billion in 2002, according to the Census Bureau.

Receipts (revenue) rose too: to $47.01 billion in 2007 from $46.18 billion in 2002.

The data were released Oct. 9 and will be updated as they are refined, according to the agency.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

(Still another) sign of the times

Even The New York Times is pinching pennies, according to an item from The New York Observer, which indicates the Times announced it no longer will pick up the cost of newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Reporters generally use the subs to keep tabs on the competition or as fodder for other stories.

Monday, October 12, 2009

(Another) sign of the times

In a note from a recruiter who works exclusively with the editorial side of the media (print and digital):

"In this economy and with what’s going on in the newspaper industry, there are very few editorial jobs out there and a glut of candidates -- good people who have been collateral damage in the cutbacks, consolidations, outsourcing, etc. ... I'll keep your resume on file."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sign of the times

How tough is it out there for writers?

Check this out.

Note in particular some of the numbers: 5 months without a job; 70+ applications; 200+ responses; a posting up and down in 48 hours.

It's downright discouraging.

Status: Fifth Estate

Today marks three months since my July 7 layoff.

Three months: Good grief, it's a quarter of a year. Ninety days: In some jobs, it's the length of a new worker's probationary period.

Where did the time go? As in real life, it just slipped away.

But this was surreal life: First there was the period of grief and tending to the open wound of being shown the door. Then venturing into public again, finally sure that UNEMPLOYED wasn't tattooed on my forehead. Then reworking a resume, drafting cover letters, networking with people near and far.

At a breakfast meeting of community leaders that I'm still welcome to attend, I had a new business card at the ready and an answer to the inevitable "What are you doing now?"

I belong to the Fifth Estate, I said and got quizzical looks. You know the rundown, which dates back centuries: the First Estate is the clergy; Second Estate, nobility; Third Estate, commoners; Fourth Estate, the press.

Fifth estate is a relative recent term for bloggers, both of the amateur (citizen) and professional (legacy journalist) varieties. And while Wikipedia has an all-over-the-board definition here, the term is sure to gel in coming years.

That's not a bold prediction but a practical one: 2008 was a tough year financially for newspapers, as was the first half of 2009. And six-month circulation numbers due out soon aren't expected to be pretty.

So newspapers continue to cut back, releasing reporters and editors who need jobs and at the same time creating holes in former bread-and-butter coverage.

Now some of the journalists are establishing professional news websites independent of their former employers. The J-Lab, a community-journalism and new-media initiative at American University in Washington, D.C., has posted a video on some of those efforts:

Part 2 - Professional Journalists Create New Ventures About Critical Issues from J-Lab on Vimeo.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hear ye, hear ye

I'm laughing out loud at the coincidence: says the book Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters was published by Crown on July 7 -- the same date I was laid off from my newspaper job.

I don't blame blogging for what happened to me, but author Scott Rosenberg, a former journalist and entrepreneur turned blogger, has a terrific chapter in the book titled "Journalists vs. Bloggers" that sums up the marketplace events that have led to big layoffs at U.S. newspapers this year. The chapter is free for the reading here.

Rosenberg is on YouTube with a look at blogging's roots (and a pitch for his book):

His conclusion is that blogging, ever evolving, is here to stay as "our culture’s indispensable public square." And rather than shun or belittle it, legacy journalists need to embrace it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Breathe, she said. Just breathe.

It's called a cognitive itch or sticky tune, but I like the more evocative earworm: music that gets stuck in your head and keeps repeating as if on a loop.

Webster's online makes it sound like an annoyance (intercom tunes at the supermarket), but I found my earworm comforting, prescriptive even, in the early days of my layoff.

And breathe... just breathe,
Oh breathe, just breathe
it told me as I walked my neighborhood.

Rather than jogging, I walk to stay in shape and clear my head. But while I had been doing the 2-mile circuit on weekends for years, I now could ply the route daily because I had no job to report to. Over the summer, I became a statistic in the Great Recession and a Paper Cut in the newspaper industry.

At that point, I was having regular panic attacks (WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?!) that made my heart race, that clutched at my throat and filled my eyes with tears. Then the refrain would do a loop: breathe, it said, just breathe. And I would.

I'm no music aficionado or CD collector; I don't know why the lyrics came to mind. In fact, I had to do a Web search to find out what my earworm was.