I don't envy the editors of Gannett's top 31 U.S. newspapers, who are gathering next month for a briefing on how Corporate expects them to run GCI's newsrooms following June's layoff of 700 U.S. employees.
In a memo, News Department Vice President Kate Marymont said they had a critical question to answer: "How can we create unique, high-impact journalism with smaller staffs?"
That question might be better phrased as: "How can we create unique, high-level journalism with even smaller staffs in the future?"
That is because U.S. newspaper division President Bob Dickey has virtually guaranteed there will be more layoffs due to work consolidations. For his division, that means the loss of hundreds of jobs to the five News Design Studios, which will produce newspaper pages for nearly all the 80 U.S. community newspapers. The timetable is now in flux. The five hubs were to have been up and running by about summer 2012.
More broadly, Corporate confronts growing skepticism among the several thousand newsroom employees, whenever a new quality-control initiative is announced. In the Aug. 16-18 meeting, it appears editors will learn more about the as-yet defined "passion topics" that have been the source of speculation on this blog. We've heard about a Content Evolution Team that's been studying the newsrooms' future for the past year. In her memo, Marymont did not mention by name passion topics, nor the team, however.
Back to the future
I can well imagine Corporate publishing a summary of the meeting, one that might read as follows:
GANNETT EDITORS HEAR ABOUT A NEW LOCAL-NEWS APPROACH: PASSION TOPICS
It has been four years since Gannett editors have gathered for a group-wide meeting, and not even a hurricane could prevent them from getting together this week at corporate headquarters in McLean.
Perhaps it was symbolic that the winds were blowing strong, for the meeting's theme was that we needed to breathe fresh life into one of our traditional mainstays: local-news coverage. This is especially true in this world of varied media choices for readers and potential readers.
So, editors heard about a new approach to local news aimed at becoming much more relevant to readers and much better at intersecting with their life experiences.
The winds-of-change approach introduced at the meeting is called: Passion Topics.
Passion Topics is reporting on people, places and events significant in the everyday lives of readers and covering other news so that it directly connects to them.
The program was developed by a group of Gannett editors, publishers, researchers and Corporate News Department executives who, earlier in the year, gathered to explore strengthening local-news coverage.
Based on research on readership and observations and experiences of the group, it was determined that too often our newspapers don't cover topics in ways that intersect with the everyday lives of readers. Thus, Passion Topics is designed to help newspapers rethink coverage approaches to connect more often and more meaningfully with readers and potential readers.
Key elements include covering breaking news and key topics in ways that are more relevant to readers, carrying out exclusive enterprise and First Amendment stories with readers' concerns in mind, extending the democratic conversation in our communities -- particularly through online, and respecting and writing more about the Passion Topics that are especially important in our readers' lives.
All of these elements are to be delivered in print, online, and in other ways that bring this news to readers, users and listeners. Or, more simply put, the news is delivered where they want it, how they want it, when they want it.
Editors not only heard about these themes, but they also spent time in breakout groups doing some of their own brainstorming on Passion Topics aspects.
Why staff is skeptical
In fact, what you've just read is the slightly edited text of a News Watch article that then-News Department chief Phil Currie published Sept. 19, 2003 -- nearly eight years ago. I've added or substituted just two words in bold-face type. Otherwise, the text I've quoted is 100% the same.
What's my point? Corporate has a history of pushing top-down initiatives that are long on buzzwords, and very short on substance. One sounds just like the next. And they all boil down to the same obvious conclusion:
Exclusive local news with broad impact is the key to our industry's survival. That requires a newsroom with more -- not fewer -- resources. Pretending otherwise is folly.