JournalNow

Otterblog

Conversations about news, life and the Winston-Salem Journal

Job cuts at the Journal

If you saw the brief in today’s paper, you know that we let five members of our newsroom go during the past three days as part of a cost-cutting plan. It is difficult and dreary work.
The five positions were our NFL reporter, our outdoors columnist, our film critic and two people who prepared photographs for publication, known as scanning technicians. Good people all. We didn’t make these decisions lightly.
Newspapers—and other media companies—are in a tough environment. Advertising is moving online, and circulation is struggling. For publicly traded companies, there is pressure from Wall Street to keep profits up. Cost cutting has hit virtually every newspaper I know of, and it forces newsroom managers to make tough choices on what to keep and what to forego.
It’s usually the lesser of two evils. Consider, for example, our film critic. We were one of the smallest newspapers to have a full-time film critic, and we enjoyed that distinction. But there’s plenty of excellent film criticism out there that we can use for nationally released movies. We’ll still occasionally review movies with a local tie-in. By contrast, nobody else is covering the local board of education or the city council. It’s unique content. So in making our decisions, we were guided by our belief that what we can do best is cover Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and Northwest North Carolina. That’s where we think our future lies, being a metro paper with a strong community focus.
And we’ll keep covering the NFL and try to offer some outdoors coverage, although probably not at the same level as before. Sometimes quantity equals quality. Sometimes it doesn’t. Having fewer bodies forces you to choose and sometimes be smarter in how you approach coverage, dispensing with the routine and focusing on trends and bigger pictures. That’s the goal.

Coverage has to change to reflect the world and the resources we’re given. My first job at the Journal was covering aviation. That beat no longer exists. But we have made room for pro basketball and hockey and technology and so on.
I know this makes it sound bloodless and clinical. It isn’t. These cuts hurt, and I’ve grieved over them.

Newspapers are a business to some as much as a calling for others, and the two can’t always be reconciled. It’s easy to forget that fact, particularly in flush times. There was a lot made in the trade press last week about Dean Baquet, the editor of the LA Times, getting forced out for refusing to go along with budget cuts. That raises interesting questions about leadership. I think everybody who is running a newsroom in America has asked themselves what would they do if they were in Dean Baquet’s shoes. My answer: I don’t know. We each have our threshold for when we think cuts are too deep and alter the mission of the calling that is journalism.
I haven’t given up. Journalism is in transition, from print to digital, and given a choice and a chance I want to see what comes out on the other side and play a part in shaping that future.

Posted in , , on Tuesday, November 14, 2006, at 12:45 PM | Permalink
Esbee says: Nov. 14  at  07:07 PM

I’m happy to go find it on Journalnow.com , but please consider inserting hyperlinks to the Journal pieces you discuss, like to “the brief in today’s paper”. I’m almost positive I’ve seen you do it before, but I wish you’d do it always.

Sorry to hear about your cuts. I think it must be very difficult to be the one sitting at the desk with the brass sign reading The Buck Stops Here.

says: Nov. 15  at  09:42 AM

I’ve gone back and added the link. Sorry about that. Just got behind.

says: Nov. 15  at  11:18 AM

This blows.  I can’t argue about the prepress cuts but you are absolutely contradicting yourself with respect to DK and MB.  At some point, subscribing to the paper becomes a value proposition like everything else.  I think you are starting to diminish the perceived value of reading a local paper by eliminating positions like these. 

You are not going to drive readership by delivering ads and the same wire news everyone else provides.  Yes- ad space dictates how much news you can deliver- a total chicken vs the egg proposition.  But when you eliminate local flavor and perspective, you are finished.  Band aid cuts like this will do little to change the death spiral of print media.  If anything, you should be hiring more local reporters and columnists to solidify your position as NW NC’s leading news source.  It is time the Journal and MG started thinking outside the box and stopped following the lead of your industry peers.  That obviously is not working.

Cash flow margins in the media business are outrageous in comparison to other industries.  What you perceive as “Wall Street pressure” is more likely a case of “pigs at the trough”.  If Gabelli et all are so concerned, why didn’t they sell their shares when MG was in the high $50’s?  Because they know what a cash cow this business is and they want more and more.

It is unthinkable to me that these positions matter at all to the bottom line.  I know you feel the same way- I’m just sorry for everyone there.

Rknil says: Nov. 17  at  07:39 PM

The previous post nails it: It’s more of the same failed approach—Make the product weaker, then expect profits to rise.

Taking this approach shows a fundamental lack of business basics on the part of newspaper executives, many of whom would have trouble organizing and overseeing a two-car parade.

says: Nov. 17  at  09:47 PM

Sadly, newspapers’ idea of losing weight is by chopping off their legs. It’s an ultimately untenable situation. (Unless this does reverse the tide of red, and, honestly, it’s worked so well so far….) Cut costs or attract more readers? Has anyone heard about spending money to make money? Newspaper mgmt these days seems unwilling/able to pursue a less shortsighted strategy. What’s worse is that their coverage of this collective bloodletting is hampered by the guilt/shame on their hands, which has limited how honestly newspapers address this. Where are the hard hitting interviews with the publishers, and candid discussion with funds managers? But, these new lean newspapers, they don’t do context all that well. You know, space limitations and all…. If anyone had any sense the paper would tease longer, more in-depth web stories, drawing more eyes and building brand, but, again that’d cost money, something the newspaper mgmt won’t do, and most employees are too timorous to question… Let’s hope someone rich buys the Tribune and we witness a return to journalism, instead of this retreat into the same tapioca pabalum Hollywood usually serves.

says: Nov. 17  at  10:47 PM

You management types are dumber than a bag of hammers.

You don’t improve the quality of a newspaper by cutting the staff, especially longtime or well-read employees, and try to replace them with “occasional” coverage or bland, uninspiring wire service stories.

You may be able to have someone else work harder scanning photos. You can get NFL coverage from the Associated Press. Where are you going to get local outdoors coverage? You can’t, unless you rehire the guy you just fired as a “contributor” or some crap like that.

And who is going to produce the digital copy everyone thinks is going to replace newspapers? Huh? Who does it now? Where does AOL or Yahoo! get its “news” for its sites? From newspapers and the wire services.

Trim your staff. Go ahead. Hacking five newsroom members results in more bad blood than bottom line savings and serves only as a reminder to the other newsroom staffers that they’re next.

Next year, two years, sometime. But they’re next on the chopping block.

says: Nov. 17  at  11:23 PM

These people have families and young children, I presume. You just killed their careers and you blog about how it’s for the good of community journalism? And you compare yourself with a man who refused to make such cuts? What kind of person are you? I’ve lived in this city all my life, I’ve never met you or met anyone who has. How can you possibly know what is going on this community?

says: Nov. 17  at  11:42 PM

Shameful. Purely shameful. You put profits before news, obviously, and our town will be worse off for it. I agree with the person who said you can’t keep watering down my newspaper and expect me to keep paying for it. You’ve just contributed to your own spiral—I will be canceling my Journal Monday morning.

says: Nov. 18  at  05:26 PM

I will try to cover what I can here without wading into some of the venom.

1) Profit margins. They’re high, and expected to be. It’s what Wall Street demands from our industry. That level was set decades ago, in a different time/place. For better or worse, your stock price is your currency. This is the flip side of an investor-driven economy.
2) I generally agree that you can’t cut your way to growth, and I wasn’t articulating that perspective. We have added staff strategically during the past two years, increasing local coverage in K’ville/Wtown and Clemmons/Lville. There are tradeoffs that had to be made, and we generally chose the lesser of evils. Would I rather have an NFL beat writer? Yes. Did we like letting senior journalists go? Of course not, but decisions are rarely that simple.
3) I think many folks in the newspaper business fear the death spiral: fewer newspaper journalists = less news = fewer subscribers = lower profits = fewer journalists ... Nobody I know has an answer for that. You can argue that everybody I know is dumb as a bag of hammers, but that’s pat and simplistic. The point being that the financial model for how/if newspapers and the substantial costs of news gathering migrate to the Web is still being made up as we go along.
4) Finally, Bob asks me “What kind of person are you?” I’m a person who a) is paid to make tough decisions with compassion and honesty b) loves journalism and c) has called W-S home for 20 years. It’s my community, too.

says: Nov. 19  at  01:27 PM

Just curious: What is the Journal’s margin? A supermarket is highly successful in the 3 to 4 percent range. A department store is considered a big hit in the 5 to 7 percent range. ExxonMobil was excoriated for draining Americans’ wallets when it hit 18 percent.

So, Mr. O, what is the Winston-Salem Journal’s margin? Or if you won’t tell us that, how about the margin of the group that owns the paper, since it’s a publicly traded company?

At some point, you enter the land of diminishing returns. I’ve done a little research, and the going philosophy among newspaper industry analysts is that newspaper companies in general have cut well beyond the fat and are now into the bone—and that such slavish adherence to the next quarter’s return is contributing as much to your industry’s death spiral as people’s fondness for the Web.

I am not in journalism, but I respect your craft and see it as an essential cog in how our democracy works. And I fear that without bold and innovative moves—something other than cutting for the sake of cutting—our nation’s very freedom is at risk.

Esbee says: Nov. 19  at  01:50 PM

The Journal is owned by Media General: http://www.mediageneral.com/ is their website.

http://quote.morningstar.com/Quote/Quote.aspx?ticker=MEG is a website with stock information about MEG.

I have no idea what the expected profit margins are for media outlets, but I do think that as more and more news goes online, and more and more people go online to get their news, we can expect to see traditional newsrooms shrink and that means people being let go.

I think it’s sad, and personally I think the Journal should find its own niche, i.e. local news and interests, and stick with it, but when it comes down to it, nobody in this city owns the newspaper. In fact, the paper isn’t even owned within state, and that, I think, is the crux of it, as the direction for our hometown paper to take isn’t actually coming from our hometown.

At this point, I just hope no more local flavor is washed out of the paper. I don’t give a fig about the “Newsmakers” on page two, but I do want to know about my neighbors.

Rknil says: Nov. 19  at  06:00 PM

Ken Otterbourg’s response is the usual one-dimensional reply that suffices for the pat answer today’s newspaper execs whimper out in response to their short-sighted decisions.

What Mr. Otterbourg doesn’t tell you is the choices newspapers make with their “limited” resources: Younger, inexperienced workers; non-local items like the aforementioned Newsmakers column; lots of superficial tricks to try to lure in readers.

These types of decisions should be blasted as they are here.

says: Nov. 19  at  09:40 PM

First off, I just want to say that as a young Journalist (I’m a junior at WSSU) I am not detered one bit from entering into the field. It just means that I have to be multi-dimensional. That is why I write about sports, news, and I operate our paper’s website http://www.thenewsargus.com. I know that journalism as we know it is changing everyday and I am detirmined to stay ahead of the curb.

And as one of those “young inexperienced writers” that was mentioned above, I am confident that myself and my peers will play a huge role in the resurgence of newspaper.

says: Nov. 19  at  11:35 PM

The paper’s relationship with a city is a community trust. Don’t give us the garbage that a newspaper that is going to give us less is going to still cost the same yet be dedicated to journalism. I point out again that the man in LA you compare yourself to quit before killing the careers of those he was asked to fire. THAT’S what journalists do, Otter. Newsmen fight for their own first. Don’t give us this tripe about having tough decisions and loving journalism. If you did, you would’ve never stood by while these people were let go for corporate profits. Do you consider yourself more important than the people you fired? Answer that. And I’ll reiterate what I said earlier. I’ve never met one person who knows you, and you were the business editor! How is that possible? Roy Thompson, Joe Doster, Joe Goodman, these were people we knew. JAC Dunn, Jessie Poindexter, Dan Kibler. You fired DAN KIBLER? Those guys won a Pulitzer! You’ve been here 20 years? Call me in 20 more. You don’t even remember the Sentinel.

says: Nov. 20  at  12:28 AM

Bob, if it came down to it, would you quit your job because you felt guilty about firing others? I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t. Even if you did, they would still fire them anyway. I’m sure it was a tough decision but thats what being a managing editor entails, making tough decisions. I feel for those who lost there job but perhaps you should take that up with the good folks in Richmond (Media General). Pointing fingers isn’t the answer getting people to get up and pay for a paper instead of surfing the net is.

says: Nov. 20  at  09:23 AM

You ought to be ashamed. DK is one of the most prestigious journalists in this state. Big screw up. What were you thinking? This is an absolute cut in your company alright. A cut from many subscribers including myself. I have been reading DK’s stuff for years. You got a real problem man. He has a family to care for and much more potential than any other writer that you have ever hired. Way to go… you lost BIG this time otter.

says: Nov. 20  at  10:07 AM

Again, thanks for all the comments. I’ll ignore the personal attacks. This is a healthy dialogue.
1) I’m not going to discuss the decision-making process in how we put together the list of people to let go.
2) Several of you asked about MG profit margins. Here’s the link to the most recent annual report:


http://www.mediageneral.com/investor/anrpts/2005/mg2005ar_financials.pdf

By my calculations, we had a 2005 profit margin before taxes of 14 percent and after tax of 9 percent.

says: Nov. 20  at  02:41 PM

Chocolate Cake Recipe:
Mix flour, eggs, vanilla, cocoa, salt and baking powder and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Yum!

Chocolate Cake Recipe, according to Newspaper Execs Beholden to Wall Street:
Use half the flour, one less egg and skip the salt. Who will notice? Divert the resources from the omitted ingredients and hire a consultant to arrange focus groups to see what box design people like best. Fire the chef and put the mixture in the microwave for 30 seconds. Who cares what the finished product tastes like, as long as we serve it up fast!

Rknil says: Nov. 20  at  05:13 PM

Now that’s a good recipe. I’ll be sure to save that one.

Also about the “younger, inexperienced workers”: I’d be a lot more likely to believe there’s not an ulterior motive if newspapers would just admit they do it to cut costs.

Instead, we hear a lot of blathering about “the fire in their eyes,” etc. Funny how that wasn’t the standard a decade or so ago.

The lack of honesty is the big tip-off to the real intentions here.

says: Nov. 20  at  09:03 PM

Yes, Steven G, I would. Otter doesn’t own the paper. He’s just an editor. He has less experience than Dan Kibler. If you’d ever worked for a newspaper would understand the dynamics here. Otter is a former reporter firing reporters. He’s hiding behind the lie that he’s re-shaping journalism. The truth is, he was told by his superiors to fire two people in sports and Otter (with help from Carl) chose Dan and Joe Menzer. He knows he will be fired, too, when the new shape of journalism doesn’t include him. This is why he should’ve taken a stand. Nothing personal Otter. You brought up Dean Baquet’s name yourself. You said you wondered what you would do in his shoes. Idiot. You WERE in his shoes and you fired two people. There is nothing healthy about this dialogue.

Esbee says: Nov. 20  at  09:59 PM

This is sounding more and more like something that belongs on an intranet. Clearly, there are internal issues at the Journal. Got it. Message received loud and clear.

Here’s mine back: I don’t care to hear about them. Office soaps are boring to outsiders, sorry. So forgive me if I can’t be bothered to know who Carl is (that dastardly fiend!).

What I do care about is making sure my local paper isn’t watered down further, with all the same celebrity info and national snippets as every other paper. I want LOCAL coverage, and LOCAL profiles, and LOCAL reaction, and LOCAL columns.

I actually know one of the Richmond biggies, and he’s a good man, but he doesn’t live here and never has. But Ken, you do. So what I expect from you is - WELL before the discussions get so far as “fire three from this department and 2 from that one” - for you to stand up and remind Richmond who your readership is. They may not be interested in hunting, and I’m actually not either, but wow, I know a lot of people here who are. Add more if a person is a local columnist, because that outweighs syndicated, homogenized, Big Box content (Ask Amy? No, thanks) any day.

And with that, I’m out of this one, because more and more it really does sound like an internal discussion, and I feel like I’ve intruded too much already.

Just A Subscriber,
Esbee

says: Nov. 20  at  11:52 PM

To Steven G: If you are going to be a “journalist who is part of the wave of the future” you may want to learn how to spell.
Also, the phrase is “stay ahead of the curve” not “curb.”
Carry on with the interesting discussion.

says: Nov. 21  at  12:36 AM

Esbee, I didn’t mean for that to come off like I work there. I don’t. Carl is Carl Crother, the executive editor, and someone I’ve met a few times. I’m a 66-year-old man who has read the Journal and Sentinel for 60 years I guess. I’ve never written a letter to the editor in my life. I do know many, many people who have worked there. Some are dear friends. They all hate what has happened there, and they all blame Ken Otterbourg for being spineless. Listen, there will be more cuts there, eventually Otterbourg himself being let go. He knows that. That’s why I won’t be silent when he tries to compare himself to a man in the exact same position who did the exact opposite of what Otterbourg did. That’s where all my anger comes from. I know several former and one or two current sports and news employees there. It just seems that sports is the only department that really connects with the community, especially Kibler. I think this was a decision made by people who know less about our community than the people they fired. That’s all.

Moose says: Nov. 21  at  12:49 AM

Hunting & Fishing have become politically incorrect and I can’t help but wonder if the decision to drop the outdoor section was made because of that. Unlike New York, Los Angles, and the likes the outdoors are a vital part of the culture in North Carolina. With the popularity of outdoor sports in this state I’m surprised that advertisers that cater to us outdoors people are hard to find.
Unlike the other reporters that were cut Dan Kibler covered local people and local events that can’t be replaced with national feed. I would agree that the NFL & Movie Critic can easily be replaced but what national reporter is going to tell us about the local guy that kills an unusual buck or the local angler who catches a trophy?
A sad day for sure.

says: Nov. 21  at  11:47 AM

I find it quite interesting that. while the Journal lets go two of its best sports writers (and Dan Kibler also worked on the sports desk many nights), its movie critic (an extavagance, I admit) and two photo techs, they apparently don’t touch the news staff, which has reporters in parts of North Carolina where the Journal sells very few (if any) papers and pulls in little (if no) advertising from whatsoever.
I’m not talking about the paper’s Raleigh bureau (even though having two reporters there is overkill for a paper of the Journal’s size), I’m talking about the reporter stationed in Wilkesboro covering Watauga, Ashe and Wilkes counties, and the reporter covering Alleghany, Stokes and Surry counties as well as two counties in Virginia.
Now how does having coverage from those areas (and I remind our readers that the Journal has very little circulation or ad sales in those counties) help the paper’s local coverage?

says: Nov. 21  at  12:01 PM

The firing of Dan Kibler has left me really saddened.  It was one of the few reasons to read your newspaper.  I have bought my WSJ newspaper as have many other outdoorsmen.  Thanks for axing the best outdoor writer in the state.(Sarcasm)

says: Nov. 21  at  12:49 PM

I think Esbee has the right idea. We’ve probably reached the point of useful debate/discussion here.

For the hunters and fishermen/fisherwomen out there, we’re working on a plan for outdoors coverage and plan to continue in this area.

That said, people are still free to post comments etc.


Thanks

says: Nov. 21  at  07:00 PM

Mr. Ottenberg—I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox, but thanks to the fact that I’m a native North Carolinian, someone with several decades as a freelance writer covering the outdoors, and an individual who has been quite active in regional and national outdoor writers’ organizations, I do know Dan Kibler.  Quite simply, you should be ashamed.  I know enough about your readership to feel I can state unequivocally that Dan had a wide, loyal readership.  Beyond that, he was a competent, caring professional with a depth of experience that appreciably transcends yours.  The paper is weaker for his loss, and your half-hearted disclaimers to the contrary, I know your outdoor coverage will suffer significantly.  Can you honestly assure me that liberal, politically correct views which frown on hook-and-bullet activities had nothing whatsoever to do with Dan’s firing?  I seriusly doubt it.  Were I in your shoes, I would find it hard to live with myself, and the fractured comparison with the editor out in Los Angeles was lame in the extreme.  Again, shame, and in closing I would note I don’t subscribe.  I just find the fact of a skilled professional with an adoring readership, a man with a family support, and a long-time employee being treated in this fashion reprehensible.

says: Nov. 21  at  07:18 PM

Typical to fire the outdoor writer. I mean you have long been a paper slanted way to the left even though the W-S area is a very conservative part of the state and country. The great left wing media strikes again….did you ever consider that the reason your paper is in trouble is because the conservatives do not want to read the liberal slant anymore?

says: Nov. 22  at  11:40 AM

Otter -
I concur wholeheartedly with the vast majority of the blog contributors regarding the recent staff cuts. You stated in your column that you intended to provide a paper with “a strong community focus”, yet you kept “unique” columns devoted to NFL, NBA, and hockey, the school board and city council members.  All of the above receive constant coverage on local and national TV. How can you crow about keeping 24-hour old news in the paper? No wonder you’re losing circulation and ad revenues.  In my opinion, Dan Kibler’s Outdoor column was truly unique - laced with humor and invaluable information on LOCAL hunting and fishing lore, it has been my outdoor “Bible” for some twenty years. And don’t forget the emphasis that DK’s column placed on family and friends’ traditions.  I believe it would have behooved General Media to bring in outsiders to conduct the “witch hunt”. If they had, I believe your job would have been the first cut, rather than Kibler’s and the other REAL CONTRIBUTORS.  Since in your column you refused to let us know how the cut determinations were made, and based on the nonsensical choices that were made, I believe that you had a personal ax to grind with Dan Kibler, and jumped on the opportunity to wield it. When I learned that another departmental employee who was within 6 mos. of retirement, and who volunteered to take early retirement to save other jobs, was kept on, my belief in your personal ax was cemented.
How do you sleep at night?

S. Nicks says: Nov. 27  at  07:19 PM

It’s obvious Dan Kibler had a lot of fans. I’m pissed about the firings too. It’s sad. I also get the feeling that Ken Otterbourg is taking the heat on this blog for the higher-ups… the ones more likely trying to save their own necks by firing the people who add real flavor to the paper. I want to give props to Ken for withstanding the flaming, deserved and undeserved.

I think this surely isn’t the end to the job cuts. Maybe they’ll the ones who deserve it next time. Considering the goofball way this was handled and the erosion of morale in the newsroom, I’m very worried for my local newspaper. It’s a cluster you-know-what and everybody knows it, even those of us who don’t work there.  This town’s too small to spin this one.

Good luck WSJ.

says: Nov. 28  at  12:00 AM

I had not heard of the cuts in staff until I started missing the articles from my favorite NC outdoors writer, Danny Kibler. He’s the best in the state, bar none, even the Raleigh News & Observer has no match for his great outdoor articles. Now that he’s gone, I have no reason to keep subscribing as everything else the WSJ has to offer I can get on the 10pm news.

I agree with the writers above who say that the WSJ has lost touch with its subscribers….it’s true! The WSJ is concentrating to much on pushing its liberal political views and trying to win awards…..isn’t that what those ink-wasting documentary articles are all about? If you’re interested in cutting costs get rid of Mary Junka and her liberal buddies, and get down to reporting the REAL local news and articles of interest to us down-to-earth people. 

I hope DK keeps writing articles for other NC outdoors publications because that’s where my interest is….and where my money is heading, not in Media General’s pocket.

Post a comment

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.