Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Newspapers: The shrinking 'word force'

THE CURRENT issue of Columbia Journalism Review casts more gloom on the newspaper business with the kind of grim figures that won't go away.  Since January 2007, CJR reports, some 2,700 journalists have left their jobs with buyouts.   The figure is doubtless on the low side inasmuch as new rounds of buyouts are being announced these days as often as corporate bailouts.  

The buyout packages vary from newspaper to newspaper regarding the weeks of paid severance and medical benefits.  The Buffalo News, for example, offers no post-employment medical benefits while the New York Times grants eight  months of coverage with 11 years service. 

The picture is much the same for the Beacon Journal and Plain Dealer, which  have already gone through their first stages of buyouts, leaving newsroom employes wondering when layoff notices might appear in their mailboxes to make up for staff reduction quotas not met with buyouts.  The BJ is down to 14 reporters, I'm told, a rip from the days when 40 to 50 reporters arrived daily on the third floor.  The paper, respected for decades for its  pinpoint coverage of classical music, has an awesome  vacuum in the wake of Elaine Guregian's departure for a post with the Cleveland Orchestra.  A source at the paper tells me it's not likely to be filled, leaving a city with a progressive century-old tradition in the performance arts  to grope for  public visibility.  The local enablers  who are trying to uphold that  tradition are dejectedly at a loss to know where to turn.  

Meanwhile, up the road at the Plain Dealer, the staff tension grows as it awaits another axe to fall, perhaps as early as next week.   The paper had presented the newsroom regulars an either/or situation several weeks ago as it set its stage to eliminate 50 jobs.  Twenty five or so staffers accepted buyouts, leaving it up to the front office  to  sever about that many more with layoffs. I'm told it could include some of the ablest bylines, all of whom are members of the American Newspaper Guild ( of which I was a longtime member). In other industries,  laid-off workers might be called back when the business improved.  That's not likely to happen with the victims of newsroom shrinkage.   The owners are quite adept at downsizing, even when their papers are profitable.  So what would encourage them to start  rebuilding their staffs some day if and when the clouds part?  

It's sad, not only for journalists with no future as well as readers who are finding less and less to read in newsprint. Of course, there's the computerized on-line stuff that will lure the modern readers and maybe even the non-readers.  But if there is no one writing a concert review or about the latest exhibit at the museum in the first place, it won't be on your computer either. I would assume that potential on-line writers would like to be paid, too - in cash and health insurance. Yeah,  it's sad. 

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