Thursday, February 25, 2010

Documents show how Gannett did the impossible

By late 2007, Gannett had cut staffing to the bone, earning its reputation as the leanest outfit in the newspaper industry. Its 32,800 U.S. newspaper employees produced 85 dailies, including USA Today. It was now down to the marrow, conventional wisdom said at the time; any more payroll reductions would make it nearly impossible to get out the newspapers every day.

Yet, as the new annual report shows in stunning detail, Gannett found still more ways to whack away at staffing. Two years later, the company is publishing the same number of papers -- minus just one. (R.I.P., Tucson Citizen.) But now it's doing so with 8,100 fewer workers: U.S. newspaper employment plunged to just 24,700 by the end of last year, according to the 2009 annual 10-K report, filed yesterday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In other words, Gannett torpedoed one of every four newspaper jobs in just two years.

How many more can it possibly cut? We know hundreds are at risk as newspaper advertising production work is consolidated at two new hubs in Des Moines and Indianapolis; that's expected to be complete by January 2011. Hundreds more positions could be cut when an untold number of presses are shuttered as printing gets outsourced; the number of shutdowns this year is expected to be at least eight.

Moreover, Gannett is well ahead of ABC News in combining television jobs -- reporter and camera operator, for example -- into so-called one-man band positions; is there any doubt there will be more to come at GCI's 23 TV stations?

The lesson of the past two years is clear: Don't underestimate the industry's lowest-cost operator to extend that reputation further.

[Image: yesterday's Des Moines Register, Newseum. The paper eliminated 42 jobs during the big July layoff]


  1. I do not expect large new layoffs at the TV stations. Tho the emphasis in that statement should be on "large".

    The engineering departments are already down up to as much as 2/3rds from three years ago. Seriously. This was accomplished a few ways. One, the digital transition completing made it more possible (previously, in the mulit-year transition, they were supporting two sets of equipment and two different feeds). Secondly, more automation and the introduction of the "hubs" aggregating stations by network affiliation (all the CBS stations having one hub, all the NBC another). Third, by reducing engineering support for remotes (part of the "one man band" initiative). Fourth, by pushing more work (generally done badly so far, often pulling over worked engineers back into the process instead of doing what they are supposed to be doing) at the news room to do things that had previously been done by engineers (such as tuning in satellite feeds). Fifth, by having portions of the day (often overnights, but not exclusively) "unmanned" and just hoping nothing goes wrong, but if it does oh well. Sixth, just stressing the hell out of the remaining engineers by having them trying desperately to have one engineer do the work that would have been done by three a few years back.

    The hubs are not quite worthless, but they surely aren't as capable as they need to be to really make what Gannett would like to do actually work well. In addition to the long list of things the hub operators just can't do, there is the fact that they proudly claim to be able to react to a problem at a station half-way across the country in "2 seconds". Sounds kinda good, doesn't it? If you don't know TV anyway. A real TV professional will tell you that 2 seconds is an eternity --they think of .3 second as "a long time", and more than enough for the audience at home to go "uh, what was that?"

    In my view, Gannett has acknowledged that the fat is largely gone at the TV stations. That acknowledgement was last years stopping of furloughs at the TV statios (3rd and 4th quarter did not have furloughs) and replacing it with a permenant 5% (or was it 6%? one of those) pay cut instead.

    They've also been letting go the older more established and more highly-paid on-air talent and hiring cheapies to replace them. In addition to reducing sports and weather jobs.

    In Gannett-world, those of you thinking furloughs are your friend protecting jobs are very much mistaken. In Gannett-world, furloughs are the temporary path to more permenant cost reductions, whether it be reductions in staff, replacing highly-paid staff with cheaper staff, or just flat-out cutting everybody's salary. Ask the TV folks --already been there/done that.

  2. Oh, I forgot to mention combining the Director and Technical Director functions into one job, and thus letting go half of those staff. Directors are those folks who like to snap their fingers and say "Take 1" and like that. Technical Directors are the people who actually work the console to put up graphics and stuff and switch camera feeds. So the Directors are really snapping at themselves these days. . . .

  3. I know this isn't a TV thread (Jim just pushed my button by bringing in TV in the original post). . . but I also know that some real live Gannett managers read this place.

    You guys in Broadcast management need to get one senior engineer from each station, and send them (one at a time) to their respective "hub" to actually sit with the hub operators for a few days and "do their job with them" so that they can get a real understanding of what the hub is, what it can do, and what it can't do.

    The hub operators are all TV engineers, so they no doubt have a pretty good idea of what the station engineers are doing. But I can tell you for sure that the station engineers largely see the Hub as a black box that they barely dimly understand what it can do and what its limitations are. You need to fix that, and the best way to do it is to get an engineer from each station to visit the hub and get the short training course on what it is to be a hub operator.

  4. Not mentioned in this piece are the seemingly permanent furlough weeks (pay cuts) that the company has embraced to further improve its bottom line, once again on the backs of the surviving staff. "Hey, look at this: Not only can we threaten them with their jobs, we can shove these furloughs up their asses (no K-Y), and they'll come back for more." Now that the Gannett financial types have figured out that they can legally (?) take a hit on this furlough crack pipe, God knows they'll be back for more. OK, I get it. I'm looking for another job. If you are staying at your paper, you are enabling these assholes to keep abusing you.


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