Sunday, August 04, 2013

Rumors, water coolers -- and a mission statement

Anonymous@11:19 posted a comment last night that led me to Wikipedia, and then to this article:

Scuttlebutt in slang usage means rumor or gossip, deriving from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water (or, later, a water fountain).

The term corresponds to the colloquial concept of a water cooler in an office setting, which at times becomes the focus of congregation and casual discussion. Water for immediate consumption on a sailing ship was conventionally stored in a scuttled butt: a butt (cask) which had been scuttled by making a hole in it so the water could be withdrawn. Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumors.

Jail time for Dubow?
This leads me to that comment by @11:19, who posted an impressively long list of all the rumors they remember floated on Gannett Blog -- rumors they say never panned out.

"My personal favorite," they wrote, "Craig Dubow would be imprisoned (never mind those pesky specifics about charges or a trial)."

They then concluded: "I could go on and on."

As a reply, I'm tempted to post something snarky. ("Stop the presses! People are spreading rumors on the Internets.") In fact, however, I share 11:19's frustration, and I'm sure many other readers do as well.

But as I wrote yesterday about The Cincinnati Enquirer's sorry coverage of layoffs there, when facts are scarce, a news vacuum inevitably leads to rumors and speculation.

That's why this blog exists
Way back on Jan. 11, 2008, the day after I took a buyout from USA Today, I wrote about my 20-year history as a Gannett employee, starting with the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette. Here's some of what I wrote:

My Gazette employee ID card
My Gazette experience in its final, sad months is one of the reasons I launched this blog. It was fall 1991, five years after Gannett had stumbled into Little Rock. The Gazette was by then losing $30 million or so a year in a bitter war with its cross-town rival, the Arkansas Democrat. The U.S. economy was sliding into recession. Rumors flew that Gannett was planning to sell us to the competition, or dump us into a joint-operating agreement. More than 700 employee families were desperate for information.

As the paper's business news editor, I managed some of the newsroom staffers reporting on the Gazette's demise. We called Gannett's Corporate office, pleading for information, over and over. And again and again, we got this: No comment. "Gannett's silence chilled me to the bone,'' Max Brantley, one of the paper's senior editors, said later.

Today, much of Gannett is experiencing the uncertainty we saw in Arkansas in the summer of 1991. But now, technology empowers the company's nearly 50,000 employees to communicate in ways not possible 16 years ago.

Fast forward to last week
Things have hardly changed. (Except for the fact Gannett has shed 20,000 employees since then, mostly through layoffs.) Corporate still has this crazy notion it can lay off hundreds of employees across the U.S. Community Publishing division without the larger world finding out. And when management gets caught, as they inevitably do, they wind up with headlines even more negative than if they'd been candid in the first place.

Here's what Corporate's chief publicist, Jeremy Gaines, said when media outlets asked for a comment: "Some USCP sites are making cuts to align their business plans with local market conditions."

That, unsurprisingly, led to an Associated Press story widely published under this headline: "Gannett cuts jobs, but won't say how many."

At the risk of stating the obvious, that's an odd position for a company whose values include "do the right thing," and a mission that says:

"We are on a relentless quest to provide trusted news and information and to actively support the people and businesses in the communities we serve."


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.


  1. Investors, media and most important Gannett staff has come to rely on this blog for its relentless quest to provide trusted news and information and to actively support the people and businesses in the communities who work within Gannett to serve. Or at least, pretend to serve as it is now painfully obvious that the Gannett executives and board have no real interest in this mission nor in its employees.

    Thank you for this blog.

  2. I totally agree with you 7:07 - and Jim, thanks for this blog. Corporate and on-site management tells us nothing. They don't even acknowledge how many people get laid-off or who they are. All we hear is a little watered down praise of those who are gone and a pep talk. And of course that corporate management will have another brilliant plan to put the ship called Gannett back on course. The First Five Graphs, News 2000, Real Life, Real News, Information Center, Content Evolution. How well did those work out? I strongly suggest that shareholders, especially employee shareholders, push back against the executive idiots who are clearly throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks. Vote your proxy and toss out the incumbents. Vote down any executive compensation plan. Stop rewarding failure. Get a revenue stream and stop blaming the "content producers". Customers won't pay good money for a shrinking newspaper and a website populated with repeated and old, out of date content, which languishes there for days at a time. Put up a stronger paywall, the current one is so porous, a middle schooler can get through it. All of the items mentioned has been and will continue to be a formula for failure if executive management continues to pursue them.

  3. Here's the thing that you've got wrong, Jim -- as well as everyone else crying about "STEALTH LAYOFFS!" --

    You keep treating this thing like it's someone in the Crystal Palace saying, "Let's axe, say, 300 jobs. Somebody figure out how to not tell anybody."

    That's not how any of this went down, and anyone who thinks that's what happened is blindly hiding from the facts, or is too enraged to listen to them.

    Each site had to make up a number because revenues were soft. Happens all the time in any business. Some sites were able to make up the number through higher revenue they'll have to hit. Some did it by cutting other things, say travel. Some held positions open or implemented furloughs. Some did all that and it wasn't enough to make their number, so they had to lay people off.

    It stinks, to be sure. But to imply that Gannett is trying to hide something is a stretch. They gave sites the power to control what and how they did things.

    And local people had to make some tough, stinky calls. But this was different than layoffs in the past -- no directives were issued on people. To imply otherwise just makes you a pot stirrer.

    So go on pretending to be on the high road, and innocently providing a forum by which people can tell lies, spread rumor and destroy the pockets of good morale remaining. I imagine it brings you joy. But then don't wonder why your sources are drying up. You can't be trusted.

    1. 10:05 So, none of the group presidents ordered a news blackout? And Hollingsworth didn't tell her group to limit e- mail discussion of layoffs?

      Also, Corporate didn't have to first sign off on the RIF lists before local sites could proceed?

      And Corporate announced the layoffs and the totals before they were contacted by the Associated Press and other media?

    2. There are no "pockets of good morale remaining." Gracia had succeeded in building up some goodwill, in part just by not being Dubow, but that's gone now.

      10:05's critique reminds me of the story of the Southern sheriff during the Civil Rights battles who called a newspaper editor to complain about a photo of deputies swinging clubs at Freedom Riders. The editor rightly pointed out that the sheriff's problem wasn't with pictures in a newspaper, it was with deputies swinging clubs.

      The problem isn't with how layoffs are discussed, or not. The problem is with layoffs.

    3. 11:16 misses the point entirely. That post is entirely irrelevant and should be deleted.

      The last paragraph of 10:05's post is exact. Jim pretends to gather details innocently when that is not the case at all. The agenda is obvious. The actions of the last few days have fueled it, to be sure, but even when there were no layoffs, the mongers were here, telling us every week there would be.

      Also, is the Lafayette, Ind., paper still open? I thought for sure it would be closed by now. After all, that's what was reported here.

    4. I'm leaving 12:39's comment in place.

      But I've now added the word "mongers" to the list of words like "trolls" and "lemmings" that get comments pulled.

  4. "Stinky" being the key word...

  5. Keep up the good work Jim!!!

    When the AP and other credible Web sites and media quote you in their stories, that speaks volumes about your credibility.

    Good job!!

    1. More like they were too lazy to get a more credible source.

    2. That's bullshit, 12:41, unless you can offer examples of other, credible sources.

      Corporate knows how many employees were laid off last week company-wide. The AP asked Corporate, and all they got was "some USCP sites are making cuts to align their business plans with local market conditions."

    3. Jim is right. It's a double standard for newspapers. If a company in a paper's circulation area was laying off workers, the paper (if it's worth its salt) would publish a story on a reduction in the workforce.

    4. Actually, Jim is wrong for the reason you describe. It used to be that the standard contract with AP called for papers to provide information (generally meaning articles) upon request.

      If AP had a backbone, it would tell those papers to cough up the details or face being in violation of the membership agreement.

  6. I find the corporate apologists, who show up on this site to comment, both naive and disingenuous. All this secretive subterfuge needs to be called out for exactly what it is, pure bullshit

  7. Mr. Yesterday8/04/2013 6:39 PM

    You know what would be worse than heading into work last week and getting axed in the latest round of layoffs? Being somebody who still collects a Gannett paycheck for logging on to this blog to weave the corporate web of lies and deceit.

  8. No rebuttal to those rumor claims, I see. Maybe tomorrow.

  9. This is round 1. There will be more. Soon.


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