Two high-profile departures from the Tribune ranks this week reminded us that not everybody is going to make it through this transition in the news business.
Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski is a clear-headed, tough-minded journalist of considerable talent, and she will be missed. David Hiller, who was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, left less impression on the profession, though his exit foreshadows darker days ahead for staffers there. Their departures come as all the Tribune operations cut both staff and newshole to help meet debt payments amidst falling revenues.
Believe me, I know how it feels. General economic conditions remain grim, and earnings reports from newspaper companies offer scant promise of rapid revenue improvement. News companies rely heavily on advertising from retail, auto sales, real estate and employment. None are healthy right now.
This is the fire on the burning bridge – making it both hard to get across, and imperative that we do so.
There are a number of convenient scapegoats for this situation (I’m apparently one, myself), but despite that, no easy answers. The integrated, multimedia firms we still call “newspaper companies” may be the only medium still showing growth in total audience, but that hasn’t translated into sufficient revenue to pay for our expensive journalistic habits or inefficient old operating methods. The result, inevitably, is continued cuts and contractions.
Unless carefully managed, these can deteriorate into a feedback loop of frightening intensity, in which cuts cause declines ... which demand cuts ... which cause declines ...
The way out of any feedback loop, from greenhouse gases to newspaper woes, is to interrupt it. Stop the bleeding, then fix the problems. We can, and we are.
Doomsayers and anonymous commenters don’t want to acknowledge it, but newspapers remain the foundation of the most powerful news-gathering organizations in the world. We’re stretched making debt payments while revenues decline, but we’re making them. McClatchy has paid off hundreds of millions in KRI debt and is on track to meet our year-end target of about $2.1 billion.
Critics and dreamers want a silver bullet. There isn’t one. We’re going to have to work and manage our way out of this, day by grinding day. We cut expenses, painful as that may be. We’re selling non-strategic assets (newsprint companies, excess real estate). We’re engaged in partnerships both to reduce expenses -- like shared production facilities or distribution deals -- and to extend our reach, as with the Yahoo partnership and Google ad auction deals.
And there is much more yet to come. Complex systems do not lend themselves to simpleminded fixes, no matter what academics or dilettantes might argue. (They remind me of nothing so much as Nelson Algren’s observation about the dangers of literary conferences, where you will hear one-book wonders describe “the failures of Paine, the failures of Twain, the failings of Wolfe, the failings of Faulkner.” As I recall, this is from an essay in The Last Carousel). We are working as hard as possible across a bewildering array of fronts, learning, experimenting, testing. We're getting better.
Meanwhile, we are growing audience and online revenue. In the teeth of a brutal economic environment, we remain profitable and are investing in growth opportunities.
We have hard choices yet to make and much work yet to do, but McClatchy remains a mission-driven, public service journalism company devoted to sustaining and advancing its 151-year legacy.
Lots of people seem to want to bet against us. I’ve got a grand here that says they’re wrong. Any takers?