Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribune Baltimore layoffs provide a clue to strategy

There is bad news from Baltimore that may have repercussions closer to home.

The Baltimore Sun, owned by Tribune, is laying off fully a third of its newsroom staff. Closer to home, Tribune owns the soon-to-be-combined Hartford Courant and Channel 61, as well as the New Haven Advocate. More about the connection later.

It's not the number of layoffs, although I have ex-colleagues who work there and am worried about them. It's the jobs that will be eliminated that concerns me about where they are going. 

For once, they're keeping the reporters. But they are laying off top editors, news photographers, columnists, sports reporters, copy editors, page designers and graphic artists. (The Sun's designers and artists once were at the top of their field. Other papers sent their designers to learn from them.)

The story says the newsroom was being restructured to fit in all media. It seems as if it is being structured to fit in all media except physical newspapers. 

Here's Len'sLens' instant analysis. Let's see how close I come.

Top editors: You want editors who don't have a strong connection to newsprint and you want to get rid of those who believe a good number of readers and the few advertisers who are left want something the reader can hold in his or her hand. 

News photographers: Who needs them? Just give your reporters cameras that can shoot still photos and videos. That's what Gannett is doing. Keep a couple of pros around just in case.

Columnists: Who needs them? Just let your reporters opine about their beats. Saves a lot of money. Who needs fair, impartial reportage? 

Sports reporters: Keep a few around to follow the major-league and really big college teams. For the rest, get the small-college and high school coaches and members of recreational teams to send in reports and statistics. Besides, most people get their sports from their BlackBerries anyway.

Page designers and graphic artists: Don't need them if there's no page to design and no graphics to create for a newspaper. The artists you want are video designers and Web designers, not people used to working with a physical, 21-inch-long page. See ya!

Copy editors: You'll notice this is out of sequence, keeping the best for last, as it were. It's because this one concerns me. I almost said puzzles me, but it would only puzzle me if I thought the folks running the Sun cared about content. 

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newspapering. Yes, I was one at various times during my career, and still do some editing. That's called the disclaimer. 

Cutting out copy editors is like a hockey or soccer team taking away the goalie. The copy editor is the last barrier to libel court, to embarrassment, to, for example, the ever-growing numbers of dumb mistakes that require corrections in the New York Times. 

The copy editor should be able to think about the top story, to run it through in his or her head, and then say that this fight in Congress happened in 1858, not 1958.

No matter what format you are using -- paper page, Web page, video, Tweet, you need to have your facts straight. That's why I'm concerned about the copy editors. And the folks who are burning down the Sun should be, too, if they care at all about quality and the peace of mind of their remaining staff.

Believe me, you don't want to pick up a newsroom phone after your publication left out an ingredient in a recipe, or got an important fact wrong in some big shot's obit, or left the "s" out of Johns Hopkins. You get the idea. 

Look, I know that editors who used to handle three stories a night now handle 30. But if you are going to blow the whistle on the governor, you damn well had better have it bullet-proof right. That's when you get your best copy editor on the story and give that person all night to parse it. Can't do it if you laid off all or most of your copy editors.

So, what's all this got to do with us? Watch what's going on at the Courant and Channel 61. See if it follows the pattern. See if that piece of paper, even if it looks dumb with the name running down the side, still rules the roost in a year or so.

Or see if Hartford gets a publication that tries to be all things to all people, and ends up being not much to not many.

I hope I'm wrong. Believe me I hope I'm wrong.

Trading in misery

Did you know there was a secondary market in bankruptcy claims? 

A secondary market is like the secondary market in mortgages. You get a mortgage and the person who originated it sells it to somebody else. Here, you can sell your bankruptcy claims to someone else. Then they trade them, like pork bellies.

Talk about making money on somebody's else's misery. But then again, didn't thousands upon thousands of mortgage brokers make money on somebody's potential (or damn sure to be) misery? Enough said. Just remember, if you are tempted to make money that way, it really does come around to bite you. 

Rant of the day

The word "after." It's used wrong in news reports all the time, and in television talking heads' advice on how to prevent the spread of the swine flu. 

"He was injured after his car hit a tree." What happened: Did he come through the accident OK, but then get beaten up by witnesses? No. He was injured when his car hit a tree.

The latest: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue after you cough and sneeze. So, you sneeze out into the open air, get your snot all over everyone, then cover your mouth and nose. Yes, most people know what they mean, but they need to get it right. They need (drumroll) a good copy editor.

Until next time...

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