The Gravedancer Strikes -- UPDATED

UPDATE: I was going to put up a new post, but I don't want to spread out the discussion to three posts when it's already split up into two. Besides, at times like these, this isn't about separate bickering newspapers, it's about the journalism community -- and we should all care about that. Wow. I haven't sounded that corny in a long time. But I believe it.

Anyway, Chuck Strouse at Riptide wrote this morning about word of a 15 percent cut of the budget at the Miami Herald. This jibes with what I've been hearing. One veteran Herald writer reiterated that 15 percent was the number -- which he or she said could mean 40 buyouts or layoffs. I've also heard as much as 100. The Sun-Sentinel, meanwhile, is supposedly getting spared layoffs for now, but we'll see. Here's how the Herald source described the newsroom right now:

"The mood is somewhere between funereal and panic," the source said this morning. "These are not rumors that we’re going to have buyouts and layoffs, that’s a fact. It’s just a matter of how many and who. Literally everyone is looking around and wondering, "Who?" Understand we have couples working here. And some of them have kids."

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On deadline this morning, so I'm going to have make this short: The newspaper industry as we know it appears to be in its death throes.

I'm not talking about rumors of massive layoffs at the Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald, which is bad enough, but about Sam Zell's hair-raising, gut-stirring, nightmarish email to Tribune staff yesterday. The significance of the email to the newspaper industry cannot be understated. For those of you who haven't seen it, here's a taste:

What has become clear as we have gotten intimately familiar with the business is that the model for newspapers no longer works. Supply and demand are not in balance, and that manifests itself in two ways:

1. We are not giving readers what they want, and
2. We are printing bigger papers than we can afford to print

First, our publishing business – and to reiterate, it IS a business – needs to retool itself to a customer-centric model. We have now reviewed dozens of reader studies done by Tribune over the years, and they present clear and consistent findings. Readers want:

- Unbiased, honest journalism
- LOCAL consumer and community news
- Maps, graphics, lists, ranking and stats

...We will be assuming a 50/50 ad-to-editorial ratio base as a floor to right-size our papers. With that benchmark we can significantly scale back the size of the papers we print, and take significant costs out of our operating run rate.

I don't think you non-journalists can understand just how appalling a communique this really is. What it means is that the Sun-Sentinel is about to get a whole lot smaller and even more "customer-centric" -- which indicates that real-life professional journalism (which the people don't seem to realize they want when they are put in focus groups) will be diminished.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the company's flagship Chicago Tribune also published a story in which COO Randy Michaels, Zell's right hand, indicated there would be serious layoffs. From the article:

The recently installed COO also disclosed that Tribune officials have been examining the productivity of individual reporters at the company's newspapers, and have observed a significant discrepancy between the output of individual reporters.

In addition, he said, the productivity of the reporting staffs at Tribune's smaller dailies is much higher -- in terms of sheer output -- than at larger papers such as the company's big Los Angeles Times paper.

The implication of that difference in output, as measured by story production is that "We can eliminate a fair amount of people, while eliminating not much copy," he observed. Michaels didn't offer any details.

Make no mistake, this is a morale killer at Tribune papers (including the L.A. Times) across the country. One Sentinel staffer emailed me, saying we can "stick a fork in newspapers." It brings to mind that little "fuck you" that Zell gave to Orlando Sentinel photographer Sara Fajardo, who was afraid that Zell was going to turn the Tribune newspapers into "Pennysavers." Ms. Fajardo, how prescient you seem today.

After the jump: Full text of Zell's e-mail

Partners,

Instead of recapping our first quarter numbers, which you can see in our news release online, we want to get to the heart of what we’re sure all of you are focused on after our earnings call today – our discussion around the changing business model for publishing.

What has become clear as we have gotten intimately familiar with the business is that the model for newspapers no longer works. Supply and demand are not in balance, and that manifests itself in two ways:

1. We are not giving readers what they want, and

2. We are printing bigger papers than we can afford to print

First, our publishing business – and to reiterate, it IS a business – needs to retool itself to a customer-centric model. We have now reviewed dozens of reader studies done by Tribune over the years, and they present clear and consistent findings. Readers want:

- Unbiased, honest journalism
- LOCAL consumer and community news
- Maps, graphics, lists, ranking and stats

Some of our papers do some of these things well, and some of our papers do them better than others. But, ALL of our papers need to improve in this area. We’re in the business of satisfying customers, and we WILL respond to what they say they want.

The first paper to embrace this new customer-centric design will be the Orlando Sentinel, and it will debut on June 22. You’ll see all of our papers incorporate some level of redesign by the end of September.

Second, we must also strategically align the size of the paper we produce with what advertisers want. We will be assuming a 50/50 ad-to-editorial ratio base as a floor to right-size our papers. With that benchmark we can significantly scale back the size of the papers we print, and take significant costs out of our operating run rate.

We must find the balance between producing excellent products and producing products we can afford. And, we will find it.

We’d also like to mention interactive, which will be a primary source of revenue in our future. We are in the final stage of developing a platform for our websites that will enable us to take advantage of all the opportunities on the web – from e-commerce to social networking to selling key words and other activities.

This new product will come to each of the business units fully loaded and ready for prime time. It will be a simple tool kit that is pre-populated, but you’ll be able to customize and design it for your market, and your individual audiences. But the new sites will come with a budget, and with the expectation that they will be fully leveraged to generate revenue.

The new websites will roll out to the TV stations first, and we expect this phase to be completed by the end of August. Within the coming year, our papers will have transitioned to the new sites as well. You can preview a sample of this product line at KPLR-TV in St. Louis at cw11tv.com.

We started this year by rattling the cages, and since then we’ve continued to reinforce the urgency for change. We expect by now you understand the ‘do-or-die’ challenge that has been placed in front of us. We now have a roadmap to turn that challenge into opportunity.

Sam & Randy



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