Friday, July 18, 2008

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

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?


  1. Anonymous1:00 PM

    McClatchy is an information company. Society is in the midst of an exploding information revolution. Where are the visionary information technologists among McClatchy leadership? Is there an IT engaged "Manhattan Project" to dash across that bridge of flames before the pillars of revenue become cinders?

  2. Anonymous8:26 PM

    Believe me, I know how it feels.
    There are a number of convenient scapegoats for this situation (I’m apparently one, myself)
    geezus howard...are you an idiot? I'm sorry but you are the one fanning the friggin flames on the bridge by posting shit like this. you DON'T know how it feels. what's your salary? yeah, that's what I thought, you could give a rat's ass if gas costs $10/gallon....because you are above that sordid fray the "little people" are. and then you write the scapegoat comment. I'm supposed to pity you? I almost got physically ill reading that comment but alas, I have come to accept, no wait, we EXPECT dribble like that to fly out of your mouth. give us real time solutions and not bullshit. sorry if I come off being angry but you aren't helping the cause acting like you're "one of us"...because you ain't. and anom100, there probably isn't because there is no mcclatchy leadership...all the guys in the clown car care about are their big OVER inflated salaries, perks and bonuses for shafting the people actually DOING the work. thanks.

  3. Anonymous9:07 PM

    Is the $1,000 bet:
    A. MNI does not declare bankruptcy (7 or 11) before July 31, 2009?
    B. Howard is gone from MNI before July 31, 2009?
    C. There is no further layoffs from MNI before July 31, 2009?

  4. Anonymous9:09 PM

    C: layoffs announcement

  5. Anonymous9:21 PM

    howard is fine. he has a future in the circus. he'll be driving the clown I pick B.

  6. Anonymous7:52 AM

    Even while we're going bankrupt, it still amuses me that Howard and Gary and that idiot Janis Heaphy, who allowed SacBee's online operation to stagnate for a decade because she wouldn't decide who should run it, and other assorted MNI upper level fools have lost a damn fortune ever since Gary tanked the MNI stock.

    Howard et al will still retire rich. They just won't retire quite as ridiculously rich. This does bring me comfort.

  7. Anonymous10:17 PM

    well. I'm gives me NO comfort knowing the anti-christ twins (gary and howard) are losing money in their stock options. personally I think they will find a way to rape and pillage our retirement funds to make sure they live their life of luxury. oops! sorry! howard is one of US! what a friggin joke........

  8. Anonymous9:38 AM

    Wow, look at the wonderful "Deeper and Deeper" interactive in the Sunday NYT Business section online. WHy can't MNI techies do that?

  9. Anonymous2:06 PM

    I'll take that bet.

  10. Anonymous9:53 AM

    Interestingly, the commenters are not offering solutions, ideas or insights. Perhaps they believe that rank, obnoxious heckling is the new business model.

  11. Anonymous7:42 AM

    Wait, wait, wait. When Howard says, "I know how it feels," he doesn't mean he knows how we wage slaves feel. What he knows is how the very top brass feels -- the people who fire the Lipinskis and the Hillers. Howard, I admire your ability to absorb these stinging comments and come back grinning. However: You do not know how it feels for us who face a very uncertain financial future. Our livelihoods are fragile, our options are diminishing daily, and what looms for us on the other side of that burning bridge is an old age in poverty. The inequity here is underscored by the fact that you are comfortable signing your name, and those of us clinging to the middle of the food chain have to use "Anonymous."

  12. Anonymous9:50 AM

    Oops, circulation down: Fire the reporters. Oops, sales down. Fire the reporters.
    Oops, mistake made borrowing for KRI: Fire reporters.
    Oops, stock down: Fire reporters.
    Oops, Internet isn't producing much new revenue: Fire reporters.

  13. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Oops, hire another vice president for advertising, adding another $600,000 salary to the losses.

  14. Anonymous11:58 AM

    Not a whisper of congratulations from hq for the Washington bureau winning the I.F. Stone award. Shows how much Howard and the others really care about journalism.

  15. Anon1158: Kiss my ass. I've been in Chicago since Monday talking about journalism with journalists of color, leading workshops and meeting people. I haven't had time to blog. But when I saw the announcement on email, I called the office and learned that Peter Tire had ALREADY posted the story on our intranet and the corporate site at, and we've sent email congratulations. Get your facts right, huh?

  16. That should say Peter Tira; soerry for the typo, Peter.

  17. Anonymous5:22 PM

    Howard got mad, y'all. It's been a bad day. For us, too.

  18. Anonymous6:42 PM

    howard, there is no other way to say this. you're a dick. how friggin thin skinned are you? I guess since you read this
    your ass got a little tight. another reason you and gary should be bitch slapped and put on the sidelines...without your big ass golden parachute.
    cannot beleive it was so easy for you to forget where you came from.....oh...wait...yes I can.