Tuesday, July 29, 2008

52 and Counting

Orlando Sentinel's management learned a valuable lesson in this month's staff cutbacks. It learned that it can't be "a public trust" and deceive the public.

It was late in coming, but the paper finally printed a short story about its cutbacks in today's edition. It was thin, but don't expect the paper to tell you a whole lot more. That's the way corporations behave. You know, it's all about the news release that comes at 4 pm after the markets close.

One of the things that is being driven home during this tough time is how newspapers are in fact corporations. Those of us on the inside knew it. Now people on the outside are learning the same thing. Sorry to disappoint.

One of the worse things to happen to newspapers was the corporatization of newsgathering. I had an old city editor who would fume, "The #@$%%^ beancounters!"

The second worse thing was selling shares to the public. Once Wall Street has you in its grip, you are a slave to the quarterly and annual report. If your financials aren't going up, Wall Street will kill you.

The street flogged Tribune after it bought Times Mirror. The stock really never recovered. The penny pinching dates to that moment. So does the humungous debt. I remember a time before Times Mirror, and it was a lot fatter financially.

However, it's also true that the Orlando Sentinel always wanted to be the "good corporate child." When Fitzsimmons and his Chicago gang wanted to experiment with something, the Orlando Sentinel jumped at the chance to ingratiate itself. The Sentinel didn't stand its ground -- at least that's how it looked to me.

The steady drip-drip of these "experiments" is now haunting us. Thinking like a newspaper becomes a luxury. Now it's gone.

Of course, many people benefitted from the corporatization in the form of an ESOP, myself included. But none more so than the high-level editors who were generously rewarded even while rank and file had to swallow a 2-3 percent raise.

Let's not be hypocrites, though. We are simultaneously opposed to this "organization man" stuff and also complicit, as we cheered the rising stock prices of the late 1990s.

Newspapers are corporations first and foremost. The public trust is a sideline business.


Dave Knechel said...

What a shame. So many good people now gone, including Scott Joseph. I wanted to ask him what happened to a couple of former restaurateurs, too.

At the same time, I understand newspaper cutbacks due to the Internet, higher costs and less revenue, but how worthless can a newspaper become before subscribers drop like flies? With each layoff, the quality of content really recedes and the problems compound. Less news, less readers. Less readers, less news, and it's not just news. Human interest stories have always been crucial to this industry. It seems like print media is losing more than its customers, it's losing its focus.

Oh well, keep up the good work on your blog. I remember your name from your days at the Sentinel. I'd like to add you to my blogroll, if that's alright with you.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to read your take on the announcement memo posted on Shrinking Sentinel. Seems a lot of people are getting promoted in the wake of the burying of others.
Please write soon....

David Cohea said...

I worked at the Sentinel from 1980 to 1998, and watched corporate culture slowly take over a good local paper. Back in the days of cold type it was just too expensive to run a paper to be of much interest to corporations. Innovation brought an appetite for growth, efficiencies and bottom-dollar results. The Sentinel got greedy for ad dollars -- charging more than the market could bear-- and Chicago kept asking for more and more net profit. I remember the RIF in 1991, how the company culture changed forever. I always thought there were so many good people at the Sentinel who loved their jobs, but that eventually didn't matter. Tribune took its cash cows to slaughter.