Wednesday, March 27, 2013

USAT | Shrinking staff -- and top stories, too

"It's not intended to lessen our focus or priorities on long-form, enterprise journalism."

-- David Callaway, in an addendum to a memo yesterday, announcing one of the more dramatic changes to USA Today since he was named editor in chief last summer. The paper is killing, at least temporarily, the in-depth "cover stories" featured on section fronts since USAT launched 30 years ago. Callaway says the move will give page designers and online editors more latitude. Historically, cover stories were the most labor intensive. Ending them just as USAT is once more cutting staff suggests an additional motive. I've posted both memos in the comments section, below.

30 comments:

  1. From: , David
    Date: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 8:15 AM
    To: USAT ED Newsgroup
    Subject: design challenge

    Folks,

    We’re making two big changes today, which will present huge new opportunities for our news designers and online editors and speed our pace in the digital news cycle.

    Starting today, we’re putting the cover story in the newspaper on hiatus. We’re opening up the section fronts to the designers to use graphics, photos, breakouts and more stories as they see fit to liven up the pages and focus on our most interesting stories each day. While story jumps will still be allowed, we want to keep them to a bare minimum, if at all. The best section fronts, including the front page, will have strong refers to great enterprise journalism, analysis, and personalities inside, as well as on the outside.

    We’re abandoning the practice of holding stories for certain programming times on the web, especially front page stories from the night before. This will give our online editors more freedom to experiment with different layouts as they see fit, resulting in livelier section pages online. The introduction of Visual Revenue this week across the editing desks online will help us in this experiment.

    More to come in the next few days…….cheers…….dave

    From: , David
    Date: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 8:59 AM
    To: USAT ED Newsgroup
    Subject: design challenge - add one

    Folks,

    Lots of great reaction to this challenge but also a key question.

    This is a design initiative. It’s not intended to lessen our focus or priorities on long-form, enterprise journalism. We have several major enterprise projects in the works and many more developing each day. The changes here will allow us more freedom to give them the homes they deserve, both digital and print. Cheers. DAve

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  2. Sounds like the announcement went over like the proverbial lead balloon in the editorial ranks. Can a Pulitzer for "Best Paragraph" be far behind.

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  3. Here's my addendum:

    Callaway didn't have to put cover stories on "hiatus" to give designers and editors more latitude -- unless he means the stories are still being produced daily, but published on an inside page.

    The solution is found in what editors did today: Summarize the cover story in four paragraphs, then note that the rest of it appears on an inside page.

    There's no doubt that overall print presentation -- photos, graphics, and text -- ultimately define content; a great story is rarely limited to just text. So, Callaway's decision to give designers greater freedom could be a good thing.

    But text does matter. Further reducing the paper to a collection of longish briefs punched out assembly-line gets you another version of Callaway's alma-mater: MarketWatch.

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    1. Well put, sir, and I agree with most of your take. The exception is that I don't believe the "greater freedom" aspect. It's Gannett, and if that "freedom" doesn't toe the line, you're out of a job.

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    2. Not well put, Jim. Your type of comment is such an absolute waste. We are talking about a newspaper flushing content down the toilet. Redefining content at this point is useless.

      Either get a clue and start addressing problems like this head-on with the full criticism they deserve, or admit you lack the courage to do so.

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    3. Back in September, when USAT's print and digital redesigns were launched, I wondered when the content would get a lift. At the time, Callaway said:

      "The biggest brands are beginning to look at news not from the point of how it's collected and delivered, but for what it has always been in its most basic form -- telling you something new."

      In that respect, I haven't seen any significant improvement in content yet, and it's now six months in.

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  4. Wonder if this will roll down hill to the USCP as well?

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  5. Since when has Gannett ever been in the business of giving any of their "front line" people more freedom to do what they think is best?
    If a story merits "cover story" status? go with it. If not? don't. Pretty simple. Except the big G can't make it simple. Everything has to come from up high and become a mandate.
    The G has always been about the packaging. Whether the "gift" fits or doesn't.
    And lets be honest - the G wants less time-intensive stuff and fewer restrictions on needing staff bylines on center packages.

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  6. This is a clear message that reporters can no longer slack off and avoid work other than their precious covers, which can take weeks of wasted time while actual news happens. Lots of covers suck.

    Bravo, Callaway.

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  7. No cover story should occupy a reporter's total time during the week or day.

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    1. Obviously, you are not well versed in what it takes to produce good journalism. Producing great stories that tell people something they didn't know is time consuming, hard on the reporter and demanding. As a frontline editor, I didn't always agree with the time it took some reporters to do a story. Still, I appreciated what they were up against and respected that. Overall, their hard work informed readers, changed state or local laws and put people in jail.

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    2. Here's my take. When I worked at USAT as a business news reporter and occasional editor from 2000-2008, the paper had unrealistic expectations about what news it wanted to cover -- and how much it was willing to spend to do so.

      We were told to focus on a relative handful of subjects, so we could develop sources and write with authority. We were not supposed to try going toe-to-toe with the other national and big regional dailies, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

      But time and again, one of those papers would break news, and reporters and their assignment editors would be sent scurrying to play catchup. And we never really caught up, and certainly not for more than a few days, because another similar story would come alone, and we'd be sent in another direction to put out yet another fire.

      This, by the way, was when we had nearly 500 people in the newsroom, albeit with a paper-thin network of bureaus in the U.S., and none outside the country that weren't staffed by freelancers. Today, I would guess, the newsroom is down to 350 people.

      I'll illustrate what I'm talking about with two examples.

      The drug maker Bayer was getting hammered in a court in Corpus Christi, Texas, over a huge product liability suit. The company's stock was falling amid revelations coming out in court. We didn't have anyone there.

      Although I was the small business news reporter, based in San Francisco, I also was the best available warm body. I was told to get myself to Corpus Christi by the next day, and to start reporting right away.

      There were no direct flights between San Francisco and Corpus Christi. A roundtrip ticket cost $1,500. Car rental was equally pricey because there were few cars available at the Corpus Christi airport.

      I took a redeye to get there, and filed my first story the next afternoon. And here's what I heard from one of the paper's most senior editors:

      Why did it cost so much to fly to Houston? (I had to explain twice that the trial was, in fact, in Corpus Christi.) And why was the car rental so expensive? Couldn't I get better deals?

      WIthin 10 days, with the trial clearly stretching on for weeks, USAT grew bored, and I was pulled out.

      Here's the second example:

      Hewlett-Packard was embroiled in a boardroom spying scandal. We were getting our ass kicked by the WSJ, NYT, Newsweek and -- at the time I got parachuted in -- the Washington Post.

      By this point, the story had now moved to Congress, where a committee had begun public hearings. The Post was beating us and other papers on getting documents "leaked" to the media concerning the scandal.

      Recall that I was the small-biz news reporter, working out of San Francisco thousands of miles away. An editor came to me, said we had to catch up to the Post, that I needed to find out how they were getting these documents.

      I said I would try. But what I didn't say was: This is ridiculous. The Post has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over decades to develop key sources on Capitol Hill (remember Watergate?) -- long before USAT was even launched.

      The bottom line in both examples is . . . well . . . the bottom line. You get what you pay for, and USAT never really wanted to pay up. Management too often wanted to meet the competition, to produce great journalism -- but invariably on the cheap.

      So, now the paper is cutting staff once more. This is after the newsroom was reorganized in November so that, in David Callaway's words, the paper could "expand our digital coverage as well as the impact and watchdog journalism that makes USA Today a national treasure."

      A national treasure. As I learned in my first newspaper job, just because someone says something, doesn't make it true.

      Delete
  8. Much too little and certainly way too late. It doesn't matter what USA TODAY does at this point. There is absolutely nothing in print or digital that will change the direction it's headed.

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  9. I would never suggest that USA TODAY was ever a well-oiled machine. The level of incompetency of some long-time newsroom managers and front-line staffers was legendary. Favoritism ran rampant. Territorial battles were conducted like junior high school fist fights. The worst offenders flew under the radar for years or were protected by higher ups with fancy titles.

    But there was one thing different back in the day. There were enough good workers to keep the trains running on time and to keep the paper from embarrassing itself on a daily basis. These talented and hard-working folks were the unsung heroes of the USAT that rose to No. 1 in circulation in the glory days. They compensated for all the dead wood. They overcame bosses who were as unethical as they were talentless -- one or two even appeared to have mental health issues. They tolerated some of the worst hiring practices imaginable, where folks were given a job or a promotion not because they earned it, but for other reasons that had little to do with putting out the best product available.

    With that all said, what has occurred at USAT in the last five years makes the bad old days look grand. From the layoffs of some folks we could use right about now to the change for the sake of change mentality, USAT is spiraling downward. Maybe some of this is the residue from years of mismanagement, but it's hard to deny that things are getting worse by the day.

    USAT can no longer afford to make mistakes. There aren't enough bodies to go around for anyone to fall short on skills or workplace ethics. We need people who are smart, quick and nimble. Those who have been retained because they have a nice smile but offer little in the way of versatility or publishing expertise, have to go. It's not an age thing. It's not a digital versus print thing. It's an intelligence issue. And we need smarter, more skillful people in order to compete on the national stage. We need people who love journalism, not folks who just happened to stumble upon working here without any commitment to the field.

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    1. It is so funny to read a post like this. I've worked with newsrooms at a lot of properties. I've seen stress in all shapes and sizes. Brothers and sisters of the news world if you ever want a good belly laugh visit the USAT newsroom. You could look until the cows come home and you will never and I mean never find any signs of stress. This is like the billionaire that tells you money isn't everything. They have no real perspective. So don't buy into this sky is falling silliness. They have no idea what real pressure is. But don't let that stop you folks. Keep weaving your tales, it's interesting fiction!!

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    2. This may be true for most staff,but several reporters,editors and digital folks are routinely stressed carrying more than their share of the daily load.

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  10. Design trumps content again. That has worked so well in the past

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  11. Here's just a hint at USA Today's labor costs:

    The newsroom alone has about 350 employees. I suspect average salaries are around $100,000-$125,000, including medical benefits, which are higher than you imagine.

    Multiple one times the other and you get a payroll of $35 million to $44 million a year for the newsroom alone.

    Now, consider the fact that the paper has somewhere between 1,200-1,400 total employees. Obviously, they're not all averaging $100K-$125K. Still, you can see how much higher than paper-wide payroll could be.

    (I know: $100K-$125K is sky high compared to what editors, reporters, photographers, etc., get paid in the field. But the cost of living in the D.C. area, San Francisco and New York is much higher than in, say, Green Bay, Wisc.)

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    1. Hey dere, them Packers tickets aren't too cheap.

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    2. Don't you get an owner's discount?

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    3. I don't see how USA Today can have that many employees anymore. The entire circulation department, which made up much of the employee count, is now part of GPS. Maybe you can sink your teeth into getting to the bottom of that barrel.

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  12. Blah, blah, blah. We were already DOA when these supposed great leaders arrived on the scene.

    Martore is counting the days until she gets her dream come true: the complete elimination and disappearance of USA Today.

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  13. Unless you get rid of legacy mismanagement and their tight knit friends in high places, things wont change.

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  14. There's a buyout offer on the table for a huge chunk of the USA TODAY newsroom. This is the second time since it was offered that Callaway has dropped a big "get the message?" memo. This has nothing to do with design and everything to do with flushing slow-moving reporters into the open, along with their co-dependent print-focused editors. Unless you write six-month investigations or tweet six times a day, he don't want you.

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    1. You nailed it, 9:22. Unfortunately, most of them still dont get it. The entrenched thinking, the inability to realize change, the sheer incompetency to manage people or the news, it's shocking.

      Kramer is providing a graceful exit for those who dont buy in to the new reality. If you are anywhere close to retirement age, you really should take it.

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    2. Yet another ageist slam with his/her stereotypes! Very sad, that wide brush. The disease at Gannett has nothing to do with age; it has everything to do with who's popular. In my too-long stint with this company, I saw lots of talent as well as entrenched thinking and incompetence -- and it was not limited to an age group, younger or older. It's insulting.

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  15. It is, indeed, a more graceful way out.

    Buyouts are better because they're voluntary, and typically come with severance that's at least twice as valuable as that offered with traditional layoffs.

    And most of the 11,000 Gannett jobs eliminated in the past five years alone have been through traditional layoffs.

    Still, a buyout's value varies according to your age. If you're 60, and have access to medical coverage through a spouse, you might be able to make it to 65, when retirement benefits and Medicare kick in.

    But what if you're 55, or don't have a spouse with medical coverage? If you're one of those at USAT, you might roll the dice and hope you can tough it out.

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    1. Take the fucking buyout. You dont really need this stress in your life anymore. If you think you are safe from losers like Callaway, you arent.

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  16. "A design," not content, "initiative."
    By the way, enterprise stories provide the greatest opportunity for mainstreaming. How does this add up?

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  17. Another day, another Callaway directive made without talking to anyone. If all he wants is to turn over staff, why did he create an entire layer of new management and retain or promote most of the people he doesnt bother to talk to? What is the end game, Dave? Fill management with more holdovers who dont know anything about journalism? Get more outside filler that reads like crap? Tell us the Big Plan, because weve now heard the 24/7 mantra from three publishers and we still arent staffed to handle basic news coverage. You think your 5000 "journalists" can fill the void? Seriously. You need to come out of your office once in awhile and smell the roses.

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