Sunday, July 24, 2011

A cookie cutter future for the smallest newspapers

Editors of Gannett's top newspapers are scheduled to meet Aug. 16-18 at Corporate's headquarters in McLean, Va., to revamp their newsrooms, following the latest round of layoffs. The meeting for the benefit of the "T-31" papers has exposed a divide within the U.S. newspaper division and its 80 titles, prompting renewed speculation about the future for the smaller ones.

To the best of my knowledge, Corporate has never publicly disclosed a list of the T-31s, defined as the largest revenue producers; I posted one earlier this month, which I assembled with the help of a Gannett Blog reader.

The NT-31s (for "not top") are the other 49 community papers, and are spread across the nation: from Gannett's first newspaper, the Star-Gazette in Elmira, N.Y., to the 10 titles in the Media Network of Central Ohio, to The Californian in Salinas.

Conventional wisdom suggests the NT-31s will continue to be starved of resources through layoffs and other austerity measures, much like what's happening to the larger dailies.

But given their already shrunken capacities, the NTs will be among the first to go Web-only, perhaps after a period where they become zoned editions of larger nearby Gannett papers. Call it a cookie cutter future. (A featured example, discussed below, is today's editions of three NTs in New Jersey; I've embedded images of their front pages, left.)

The best summary of where the NTs may be headed came July 12, from Anonymous@1:08 p.m. Following is the text.

'Why you get forgotten'
I am so very sorry to be the one to tell you this, but . . . the company decided a couple of years ago that you ain't worth the time, money and fuss. That's why you have editor/ad directors/GMs and not publishers. That's why you don't get included in company meetings. That's why you get forgotten about in conference calls. While your margins remain good, the actual dollars you have in play remain low. So, even though Muncie, Ind., has a much higher NIBT return than Indianapolis, the cash flowing through The Indianapolis Star's ledger makes them and the other T-31s worth the most of Corporate's attention.

For example, at Corporate, we track the NT-31s as a single entity, rolling up all the numbers into one spreadsheet, as if the combination was a single site. Of course, the NT-31s still have their own unit numbers (for now) and Evan Ray still digs into them when he sees group performance taking a dip.

Future: strip shopping malls
But, harsh reality here: The NT-31s will soon be like bank branches in strip shopping centers. They will have a sign, a front counter, maybe a person or two -- but all other real functions will be at the main office somewhere else.

Sure, we will always look for ways to spotlight a few of you folks: You get your share of the President's Rings, for example, and one or two of the Freedom of Information award finalist spots. Hey, what about Guam! Let's give them a shout-out 'cause they are interesting and fun! Keep hope alive.

But, truthfully, your value to the company has been relegated to giving street cred to the National Network Footprint of Gannett, so we can say we have XX properities in XX states serving XX audience. So, we really need to get your expense numbers as low as possible. Fewer FTES, just enough lifeblood to keep you alive but not strong enough to do much more than that. Keep your salaries low, your expenses lower, your management lowest.

So, long answer to a short question: The NT-31s will get the Passion Topics rollout in webinars, PowerPoints and conference calls -- with regional training for those clustered near T-31 sites.

Now, if you want to start another thread: How many of the NT-31 sites make more money (not just percentage NIBT, but total cash) than some of the T-31s? I bet there are a few of those small sites that do better at the end of the day than a few of those so-called larger-market sites.

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.

[Images: today's editions of three NT-31 newspapers in New Jersey that have become satellites of one, larger N.J., paper: the Asbury Park Press, Newseum. The three are the Courier News in Somerville, N.J.; the Home News Tribune in East Brunswick, and the Daily Record in Parsippany. The combined staffing in their newsrooms was cut nearly in half, to about 53, in February. Today, for example, all the papers have substantially the same front pages]


  1. Typical big company thinking. Take a small community newspaper and tell the staff how it's to be run and how it's to look. Nice.

    Seems like a lot of small papers thrive by listening to their audience and community. Each one is different....treat them that way.

    You put intelligent people in positions to do a job....then you tell them how to do their job from 1,000 miles away. Idiots!

    If they meet the bottom line expectation leave them alone to do what they do best. Idiots!

  2. People who can, lead. Folks who can't call people idiots!

  3. Appleton ran a community column yesterday, regarding political leaders but apropos in this discussion regarding idiots vs. leaders:

    "I'll tell you what a good leader is. Many years ago, my brother and I had to drive in separate cars through heavy traffic in Minneapolis. He knew where he was going. I didn't have a clue, so I was going to follow him to our destination.

    "'What if I lose you?' I asked him.

    "He grinned his big brother smile. 'Don't worry. I won't lose you.' And he didn't.

    "And that," I concluded, slamming my hand on the table, "is what it means to be a good leader."

    "Think about it. Good leaders don't lose their followers. They keep an eye on everything that's going on around them. Metaphorically, they slow down early and put their blinkers on ahead of time. Everything they do is designed to keep people working together so that they can reach the same destination.

    "Do you know how they accomplish this? They listen to the people they serve. They know that they don't have all the answers..."|newswell|text|APC-Views: Editorials, Opinion & Letters|s

  4. I worked at NNCO (now MNCO). The communities they serve in Ohio are small cities, but the papers have still provided a valuable service to those communities. While I agree that Web-only is a strong prospect, Gannett still hasn't figured out how to make Web pay.
    Personally I think they should consider going to a non-daily format; perhaps Sunday and one day per week. That will cut newsprint, graphic, production, and distribution expenses dramatically, but also cuts into advertising revenue. If they could find a balance, it could work. Given the lack of leadership thus far, though, I don't think there's anyone who can make this particular scenario a reality because it requires a belief in the viability of the small cities.
    In Ohio, the "Gannett" cities are all county seats. The newspapers are all within one or two blocks of the county courthouse, which is still where the county action is going to happen. In addition, newspapers located in the county seats have an opportunity to incorporate news for the satellite towns around them, bolstering circulation.
    But, these are all lost opportunities, and the people who live in these places are the eventual losers.

  5. Jim, thank you for shining a spotlight on what's happening at the small central NJ dailies. I have been saying on here for months that anyone who wants to know what the future has in store for the company can watch in happening right now in New Jersey.

  6. The truth be told, the smaller newspapers run circles around the Asbury Park Press. At the APP, the ass kissers have their noses so far up the butt holes of KG, TD, and the so called editor, it's pathetic.

  7. That's why you don't get included in company meetings. That's why you get forgotten about in conference calls.

    This reminds me of General Halftrack and his dealings with the Pentagon.

    Hey! We could start our own comic strip with the stories we could tell. ;-))

  8. @11:47 a.m. - Care to elaborate? Not disputing the asskissing part. That's been a part of the APP culture for as long as I can remember. I'm wondering what you mean by "run circles around."

  9. ... word is: the old Daily Record Building in Parsippany, NJ has finally been sold, to an Asian Church!

    God, Bless America!

  10. Jim, doesn't your own report awhile back on revenues and profit margins across Gannett tell us something about which of the smaller properties make good money and which don't?

    Given that, what corporate probably wants to do is to boost the margins at the smaller properties through "efficiencies."

    The investor Warren Buffett wrote in 1992 that newspapers were turning from franchises that were indispensable to readers into mere businesses that "earned exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight." He wrote that the Internet increased the supply of news, so newspapers would be driven to low cost.

    The danger, he warned, was that poor management could kill a business, while that was not the case with a franchise. Gannett may be testing that theory, too.

  11. Setting the record straight in Jersey7/24/2011 3:51 PM

    Really 11:47 and 12:09? While I agree the "NT" GNJ papers have been cut beyond the marrow, to single out the APP as being full of ass kissers and implying that it's all milk and honey in Neptune is far from the truth.
    The screws are on the APP staff because we are expected to fill the C-N, DR and HNT pages with regional articles with passing mentions of town in those circulation areas to give the appearance of "local news."
    Meanwhile this happens at the expense of local news coverage at the APP. Reporters are being told to skip meeting coverage and regional stories are give priority to fill the hole, almost regardless of relevance.
    That doesn't mean that good work isn't being done at the APP, as is being done by the stripped down news staffs at the C-N, DR and HNT and CP. I'm continually impressed with co-workers who continue to try and do quality work against the odds placed on them by corporate and upper management.
    By no means am I defending what has happened to theses newspapers, but place the blame where it belongs and on the heads of people toiling in the trenches at the APP.
    For you to belittle them with a sweeping generalization is plain wrong and you owe them an apology.

  12. Great work, Jim, in giving clear examples to the doubters about the regionalization of news content in nearby papers. There will be more and more of it with the design studios.

  13. @3:51 p.m. - I don't think anyone with even a passing familiarity with the place would ever describe Neptune as a place of milk and honey. And yes, some good work does get done at those papers. But wake up. A decent Sunday story twice a month isn't enough to make up for what's been done to the papers' day-to-day coverage, the actual meat and potatoes of the various operations.

    I don't think anyone is belittling the staff of the APP, but I also don't think it's accurate to say that what's happened there is all the fault of management and inept editors. The remaining staff at the NJ Gannett papers can only act like a mixture of martyrs and victims. It's not worthy of respect that you've all managed to keep fiddling as the ship sinks.

  14. Jim,

    The Courier-News is in Somerville. It moved out of Bridgewater a couple of years ago and its old building sits vacant surrounded by weeds.

    Also, in addition to the halving of the CN, HNT and DR staffs in February, the papers lost almost another half in June during the national layoffs. So these three papers lost almost 3/4 of their newsrooms in less than two quarters.

    If you'll recall, the stooges who lost their jobs in June were the same folks who were made to humiliate themselves by reapplying for their jobs back in February. So much for company loyalty.

    (The rehiring process was mostly a sham -- not based on talent but on minority quotas so the company wouldn't be sues for sex, race and age discrimination. For example, when management "interviewed" the photo staffers, they didn't look at or ask for photo clips. When they interviewed reporters, they didn't look at writing clips. But I digress.)

    So why haven't they already made these papers editions of the APP? Because the people running the joint are inept, reactive and have no vision.

  15. must be a manager that likes to micromanage. Idiot! :)

    Give people a little freedom to do their jobs the way they see fit to meet expectations and they'll take ownership. Dictate how they do it and it's on you.

  16. So sad -- the Daily Record (NJ) -- more than 100 years in the community, but slowly (and painfully) being snuffed out by Gannett.

  17. This is all sheer idiocy, and I don't know why someone doesn't call Corporate on the carpet for this. Readers buy a newspaper for news. They have the Internet available, but they are still buying newspapers. Why is that?
    These are all profit-makers, so why target the T-31 differently than the top 30. And what does this all mean for the newspapers in the middle. Do they become the new t-31?
    Yes, we have all been through miserable times, but in case you haven't noticed, things seem to be straightening out. And we are still selling newspapers. Why, from reading the content in some of these publications?
    Look at what happened in Detroit. They have gone to Web three times a week, I believe, and the monopoly there is still making money. If it wasn't working, do you not think we would be hearing screams of outrage from Billy Dean Singleton. He's getting his cut somehow, and doesn't care because he's only into this for the money.

  18. The DR sucked when Tomlinson owned it and it never was a place to make a career. Anyone good used it as a stepping stone to The Record, Star Ledger or a major metro. Bring on NJ Today, all done in Asbury.

  19. It's sickening that the most densely populated state in the U.S. is being served so poorly. The handful of folks left w/jobs are doing their best, but this junk is what the Big G wants. Even the slashed down Star Ledger is better than this. And some of the smarter, more affluent readers are going to be willing to pay for the New York Times, which barely covers New Jersey.

  20. Yep. I was told to spend zero time working with the NTs all across the country (this is hardly just a NJ issue) when I was at the palace.... they're just there for the perceived footprint and to suck the little dollars out. The goal is to eradicate all possible expenses. It will just keep getting worse.

  21. Yay, I work at one of the T-31s!

  22. As someone who works at one of the T-31s, I can tell you that Corporate has cut us to the marrow, too. Though we don't seem to be moving toward online-only, if someone takes a sick/vacation day, it's like we've lost 3 people and we end up being several hours behind. Please don't be jealous of us. We're paid low and underappreciated, just like you.

  23. 9:06 p.m. -- The DR didn't suck back in the day. Now it does, thanks to Gannett. When I was there it was a serious newspaper, as was the
    C-N when I was there way back in the past, before News 2000 and all that garbage started. And yes, I'm glad that my job there got me to The Record, but I feel awful for my former colleagues who worked very hard.

  24. By the way, Jim, thanks for posting my former NJ papers (C-N and DR)on the site. It hurts to see what has happened.

  25. @2:21 a.m. - With respect, have to disagree. The DR was never a strong paper.

  26. Jim, this was a nice report and much appreciated. I hope everyone at a NT-31 site takes a minute to read it and reflect. While New Jersey indeed provides the best and most current examples of the woes of the NT-31s, there's a lot more out there, too. Take a look at our smaller sisters in Louisiana, Iowa, Mississippi and Tennessee for starters.

    Sadly, Jim, you, too, fall victim to the same philosophy: The list with your report on the NT-31s only included a list of the T-31s, so you didn't even list the newspaper affected. And you haven't been as keen to report the leadership changes at those sites as you have at the larger papers. Of course, that's understandable -- and that's they same way they are regarded by their ownership. I raise this not to take away from this weekend's report (it needed to be said), but it also may illustrate how or why corporate also acts (except, of course, most of their sins are of commission, not omission).

    Finally, here's another point to raise. Scan the list of Deal Chicken sites and you'll only see two NT-31 sites (Fort Collins and Central Wisconsin) with space in the coop. What's going to be interesting is when the sales teams in, say, Asbury Park, Wausau* and Nashville start selling Deal Chicken in the markets of the smaller markets they administer. Deal Chicken, like these smaller daily papers, is geared for the smaller, mom-and-pop advertisers with little or no marketing budget. Groupon and Living Social are already farming the fields of these satellite papers for business, so the Chicken must be unleashed there, too. But, when a rep from Asbury Park, Wausau or Nashville makes a sale in the backyard of Cherry Hill, Stevens Point or Murphreesboro, the revenue from that sale will go to the larger paper (where the Chicken roost). So, in many ways, the NT-31s in these situations will be fighting against the T-31s for revenue.

    (*Footnote: Wausau is not a T-31, but it is the largest property in Central Wisconsin)

  27. 2:21 AM, Alex is that you?! Hey, congrats on using the DR as a springboard to a good journalism career. The DR alienated its readers with its 'gotcha' brand of tabloid journalism but I see those folks now are reduced to writing weather features and other pablum.


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