Monday, June 30, 2008

If it's raining, learn to work wet and then get dry

Great comments have been arriving here with increasing frequency over recent weeks. Last night two particularly good ones -- Jim Richardson (again) and Anonymous 5:26pm -- moved me to this longer reply.

(I'm now working on moving this whole conversation to a more compatible setting -- some kind of wiki/collaboration site where we can have a better organized, more accessible discussion. There are too many good ideas and too much passion here to let any go to waste. Watch this space for an announcement soon.)

In the meantime I’d like to explore Anon526's comments.

Fundamental to Anon526's observations and many other comments is the mistaken impression that The Present Troubles arise primarily from strategic or management mistakes. There's obviously no way for me to talk about this without being self-serving, but choke that back for a moment and hear me out. The fact is that while managers across many industries (including me) have screwed up plenty, that's not the primary problem.

Anon526 asks, "who set the bridge on fire?” Wrong question. Sorry to mix metaphors here, but as I often say in newsroom conversations, it's important to realize it's not raining on us, it's just raining. The economic and competitive dislocations engendered by the emergence of a networked global information exchange are transforming all media (and much of the rest of society, too). Sony, Disney, NBC, Warner, the Washington Post ... you name it. The ability to make free, perfect copies and distribute them ubiquitously changes everything. The wide dissemination of cost and pricing data empowers consumers. The elimination of barriers to entry (the cost of starting Craigslist versus starting a newspaper) bring transformative challenges to old, quasi-monopolistic industries.

These are not bad things; on balance they're good for us all, and even if they weren't it wouldn't matter. It is what it is: raining. Nobody can withstand this kind of change without changing themselves. The winners will be those who learn to work wet and then get dry.

And while everybody would agree it's good to avoid "crushing debt," as Anon526 reminds us, the definition of "crushing" has changed dramatically since McClatchy bought KRI just two years ago. The price we paid was a bargain by any historical measure, the papers we bought and kept have actually outperformed the Classic McClatchy titles since the purchase, and the debt was easily manageable with the projected, relatively conservative forecast of cash flow at that time of about $800 million for the newly configured company.

Our debt (which, btw, is declining steadily and is well on its way to meeting our year-end prediction of $2 billion), does indeed generate a lot of interest to repay, and it's harder to repay it when revenues are falling due to structural changes and new competition. Layer on the additional burden of a national advertising recession in key categories like real estate, auto sales and employment and you have ... well, what we're all facing today.

You can certainly argue that McClatchy would be less in today's headlines as the smaller, less indebted company it was before the KRI purchase. Yet in many ways, our competitive and prospective position could well be worse: with only the Classic McClatchy papers in our portfolio, California would have represented a far greater percentage of our total company, and thus the real estate downturn would have hit us even harder. Add in Minneapolis and our revenue problems would have been profound.

We also would have lacked the internet clout we acquired: a sizable stake in Career Builder and a much larger share in Classified Ventures, primarily. These are high-performing, high value assets that will play a central role in our future. The national economic troubles have masked their performance and contribution, but economic downturns don't last forever.

I realize journalism isn't the central point of your comments, 526, but let me not leave this unsaid: we're a much stronger news enterprise as a result of merging two great journalism operations. Even under the strain of today's finances, we're winning Pulitzers, exposing national and international scandals, policing local governments and serving community interests from Anchorage to Miami.

Today's McClatchy is more diversified geographically and economically and stronger on the internet. Our total audience is growing. Our journalism is strong and mission-centered.

We have challenges, but we will overcome them. I agree with you that not every newspaper company will get across the bridge. But as I offered here before, if anybody wants to put his money where his mouth is and bet against McClatchy, I'm easy to find.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Fort Worth's look at the working poor

The McClatchy Washington bureau series Guantanamo: Beyond the Law, was a fine example of the kind of public service journalism that generally comes only from established, mainstream media organizations with professional staff and the willingness to invest time in their efforts.

Here's another powerful example, this one the result of a year-long examination of working poor families in the Fort Worth region, presented by the Star Telegram. Click on the image below to visit a multimedia presentation of findings; there's also an introductory video on the McClatchy national site, here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Time is the fire in which we burn

Early in my editing career, I often moved too slowly in making hard decisions. Sometimes I simply didn’t know what to do, of course, but mostly it was a case of fearing the disorientation or disruption of enforcing an unpopular decision would negate the benefits of the move. I left people too long in jobs I knew they should have vacated. Too often, my decisions were overly influenced by staff opinion, and not the readers’ interests.

I got better as I matured in the job, and though it’s been some years now since I directed a staff, I know it’s harder today. Editors must move faster and act more decisively than ever.

Time is not our friend. Mark Zieman in Kansas City introduced me to the poem Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day, which includes the memorable couplet, “Time is the school in which we learn/ Time is the fire in which we burn.” (I think Mark probably heard it on Star Trek, but maybe he was an English major.)

That works well with some advice I offered a young editor at a non-McClatchy paper in an email exchange earlier today. Maybe I got a little wound up in my argument, but I closed by writing, “My current metaphor for our business is this: We have to move, and we can see a secure spot for ourselves right across the river. The good news is, there's a bridge; the bad news is, it's on fire. There's time to get across, but not to [screw] around. I intend to get to the other side before the bridge burns up. Who's coming with me?

The drumbeat of of depressing news about newspaper layoffs and other cutbacks grows louder by the day. Just this week we learned about about a huge cutback at the Palm Beach Post and a 25% reduction of staff and newshole at the Hartford Courant. (Since the Courant had recently been highlighted as an example of good productivity by some TRB executives, other Tribune papers are now fearing their cuts may be bigger than in Hartford.)

The crisis in our business today is about revenue, not journalism. We’re not doing everything right on our side of the house, but the fact is that total audience – newspapers plus unduplicated digital reach– is growing. More people want what we do today than ever before.

But cash flow – the fuel that keeps our engines running – has fallen by hundreds of millions of dollars. I’ll say that again: hundreds of millions of dollars. (Anybody who thinks our layoffs and other expense controls are occasioned by corporate fat cats staying in $200 hotel rooms is dangerously delusional. That might be stupid, but it’s not the problem).

Neither is it a question of profit margins. “If the company wouldn’t try to maintain historically exorbitant margins, we’d have plenty of money,” newsroom critics maintain. But margins are a derivative of performance, not an objective. If you invest a dime and get back 15 cents, your profit margin is 33% [corrected, thanks KA]– but you still can’t pay back the quarter you owe me. You can’t spend margins; you spend cash flow, and that is what’s declining at alarming rates throughout the industry, partly as a result of new competition from the internet and partly due to specific (presumably temporary) downturns like California and Florida real estate.

If you and your spouse make $100,000 a year and one gets cut back to half-time, you’d only have $75,000. You wouldn’t starve, and you could probably make the mortgage payment, but you’d sure take cheaper vacations and eat out less often. You’d also start looking hard for ways to make more money.

That’s where we are as a company today. We are working hard to increase revenue, though we’re sailing into a headwind blown up by the collapse of real estate prices, auto sales and hiring. We’re filling all sales jobs, retraining sales people to sell online products better and changing commission structures to reward growth there. Our Yahoo partnership, now in its earliest phases at a few papers, promises to bring significant improvement as we deploy demographic and behavioral targeting to online sales.

In the meantime, we are controlling expenses, because we must – and that includes painful cuts in newsrooms, the heart of our public service mission.

This is doubly painful because we’re demanding more of you at the same time – once again, because we must. The bridge is on fire, and we have to keep moving across it. Some of what we’re carrying will need to be tossed aside to speed the crossing, because failure to reach the other side is fatal.

This “crossing” is our conversion from a once-a-day printed paper to an integrated, 24/7 multimedia company. We are well launched on that journey, and successfully so. Even as things get harder, we’re moving forward.

It will require bold moves to keep moving across ahead of the fire. Raleigh and Charlotte are pioneering an intimacy of shared news and effort we’ve never tried before. Others will follow. We’re contracting outside printing for some papers in the Northwest, and may be looking to do so elsewhere. The Miami Herald delivers the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in Dade County (and visa versa); we may well see far more along those lines.

I mention these specifics (and foreshadow more to come) to make the point as forcefully as possible that our talk of reinvention is not a simple smokescreen or mere bravado. When it’s accomplished, we’ll be a smaller, more sophisticated company, honed and optimized to perform our core mission, highly efficient in production operations and aggressively skilled in selling an integrated media package nobody else can offer. The staffers who make the crossing will understand (and help create) a new relationship with audiences, with competitors, with partners.

That is the destination across the burning bridge.

'Why we do what we do'

Most professional reaction to the McClatchy Washington Bureau's investigation into Guantanamo: Beyond the Law has been overwhelmingly positive. The biggest criticism I saw was from the Boston Phoenix, which argued that other mainstream media weren't paying enough attention to it.

Reader reaction has been more varied. Most of them were likewise supportive and positive, but John Walcott tells me some only wanted to debate whether we should be waterboarded before we were all executed for treason.

Macon Telegraph Editorial Page Editor Charles Richardson heard from a lot of them in his Georgia, military community, and offered them a splendid answer. It's not online anymore, so I am posting the whole piece here:

Why we do what we do

The McClatchy Newspapers' series "Guantanamo: Beyond the Law" published in this newspaper Sunday through Thursday, has elicited a number of comments. Several readers have called the paper unpatriotic. One said the series "Totally undermines our nation." Another said the report was "totally biased" and suggested this newspaper "take a lesson from FOXNews and start publishing the good news about our country and our military rather than constantly trying to destroy our vital institutions." One, reader even said we were guilty of treason.

We are afraid some of our readers have a stilted view of our constitutional duty. But first a little history. Our country was founded as a nation of laws. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 27 were lawyers, five were informal judges educated at the world's most renowned institutions, including Cambridge and Harvard.

When the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia in June 1776, the colonies were already at war with Britain. On July 4, 232 years ago, members of the Continental Congress unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence. In the historic document's second paragraph, the authors wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

It is difficult to think of our government as not wearing the white hats; the world has depended on America to come to its rescue time after time. Brave American men and women have given their blood, sweat and tears to liberate people throughout the world. However, there are times we don't live up to the principles our founders set forth. And those principles are not conditional on whether or not we are at war.

War is indeed hell and the atrocities of war are numerous. However, what has set our armies apart from the brutal dictators, puppets and henchmen is our rule of law. One of the cases where we have not followed our own high standards is in the treatment of people we suspect are terrorists. The newspaper series pointed out that in many cases we've been wrong. We have tortured and abused prisoners without evidence of their guilt. The real crime is that those abuses were products of a system endorsed at the highest levels of our government and military. It was designed to rob the suspects of what Americans regard as basic legal rights. Proponents of the bogus system are quick to say, "They are not Americans," but our own Declaration of Independence states: "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The system invented by the Bush administration to deal with suspects has been shot down by the Supreme Court three times. We have watched this administration fabricate stories for its own benefit and play the propaganda game for the sake of the war effort.

Should the American press emulate the history of the former Soviet Union's Information Telegraph Agency of Russia, better known as TASS? Should the American press become the propaganda arm of the government such as "The Attack" newspaper in Nazi Germany, set up by the Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels? Is that what our founders had in mind?

If so, they made a mistakeof including the press in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

In a 1787 letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."Jefferson also wrote, three years before his death in 1826, "The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."

That is our duty. That is our constitutional charge. Yes, our work, in Jefferson's words creates, "agitation," but that turbulence is necessary if our republic is to survive as a free nation with liberty and justice for all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What Yahoo is good at

Interesting post from Dave Pell here, with some advice for Yahoo. Here's a taste:

Search is, for better or worse, your me too feature. You’ve got a damn exclamation point in your logo. Let Google keep the question mark. That battle is over. Don’t bring chains to a fight if you’re better with knives. Bring extra knives. News, entertainment and information is what you’re great at. You’re old enough to know that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In the Washington bureau

I'm in the Washington bureau, due back in the office in Sacramento Thursday.

Any Big Picture blogs?

Does anybody at McClatchy do a big picture blog like the one referenced in the post below? The idea seems to me like a can't-miss reader favorite. If you're doing it, could you let me know via email?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Windows on the news

Simple. Brilliant. Irresistible.

Those are some of the ways admirers describe The Big Picture, a new photo weblog at that I think should become a staple of every news website as quickly as possible. It's by far the best online use of the power of documentary photojournalism I have seen.

Have a look at this interview with creator Alan Taylor for some more insight into this deceptively simple but potent idea.

Friday, June 20, 2008


In my Tuesday post I recalled a time when a Sac Bee ombudsman criticized the paper for its coverage of wildfires in Southern California. I didn't say so in the post, but while speaking in the Bee newsroom a few days later, I attributed that criticism to the current public editor, Armando Acuna.

That was wrong. The incident I referred to occurred in November 2003 and involved Armando's predecessor, Tony Marcano. I was also off a bit about his point; he was mainly critical of the speed with which the Bee responded, not the number of reporters, and he alleged the paper had "meager resources" for such coverage.

So much for memory. I'm sorry.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nostalgia is not your friend

There’s much to admire in the passion and commitment displayed by comments posted here and elsewhere by journalists worried about their jobs, their profession and even their country. But there is much to fear in how retrograde it feels.

I yield to no one on dedication to first principles of journalism, my affection for the newspaper business or the thoroughness of my inculcation in it. I can get as misty-eyed as anyone at tales of city rooms past or newsroom characters fondly recalled or old watering holes warmly remembered; if I was still drinking, I imagine I’d be doing a fair amount of that right now.

All of us put out the best newspaper we knew how to 15 years ago (and some of us were doing it 30 years ago, too), but even if we were as good as we’d like to remember, that won’t work today. I’m not trying to trash our history or legacy here, friends; I’m trying to make sure everybody is awake. We must celebrate our roots, but our future is not well served by roseate memories. Our profession demands and deserves more of us.

I started getting the Sacramento Bee on my doorstep 12 years ago. Yes, there were star players and stunning projects – but it was not, day in and day out, a better paper than I get today. There, I said it. Add the Bee’s online presence nowadays and it’s not even close. The Anchorage Daily News I edited had much more staff and a larger newshole than now – yet its reach and influence have never been greater than today.

Many of your comments seem to reference Sacramento memories. Here are a couple of mine.

I got here after Pete Dexter (damn it) but by the time I started reading, there was nowhere near enough sharp commentary, fine writing or great storytelling in the paper. Though the Bee was indeed all over the social services beat, my wife once noted that California must have the cleanest state government in the country, since she hadn’t seen a single scandal in the paper in two years. I recall that while some readers in our survey said the Bee reminded them of Tom Hanks (a Cal State Sacramento graduate), even more picked “Grumpy Old Men” as the movie surrogate for their morning paper.

Does this seem harsh? That's not my intention, of course. I’m picking on the Bee because it’s my hometown newspaper and I’ve read it every day for many years. I’m ignoring much fine, prize-winning work and highlighting these tough examples to make a point: to whatever degree your argument is “All we need is to get back to the kind of (beat reporting) (community coverage) (bigger sports section) (whatever) ...” you’re wrong.

Of course we have to cover the state senate (and btw, Jim, Andy Furillo says he sees you there and can’t figure why you don’t see him). But if all we do is fill the paper with the kind of incremental process stories that routinely appeared 10 or 15 years ago, we’ll lose. One of you even expressed fond memories of days when Bee reporters “covered local civic associations.” Oh, please.

Memory highlights folks like Dexter or Deb Blum – and how I wish we had them both, and many others like them, on staff still. But does your memory encompass the whole of those old newsrooms? Please, go to the microfilm and read a week or a month’s worth of papers 15 years ago.

Here’s the good news: a great deal of what Jim and the Anonymice have to say is exactly what we need to hear: get out of the office; listen to the community (even if we sometimes call it “audience” these days); eliminate layers of editors and operate with less hierarchy ; tell unique stories that matter in readers’ lives; work with confidence and swagger; don’t panic.

And you know what? We also have to feed the web 24/7, learn to tell video stories, engage with readers online (thank you, Marcos), create attractive blogs with rich personalities, be flexible and forgiving when editors make bad decisions in new circumstances, speak up when the boss is wrong, and abandon our excuses.

Anything less is surrender, no matter how much nostalgia you wrap it up in.

... cheaper than the space they fill

I share this not because it has anything to do with newspapers or journalism, but because it's just to interesting to pass up:

I had to park my car at [Seattle's] SeaTac on Saturday-Sunday and this sparked a small epiphany. It now costs more to park a car at one airport than to rent one at the other end. To my twisted mind, this indicates that machines (taking the automobile as a benchmark) are now self-reproducing so fast we have reached a transition point where machines are cheaper than the empty space they fill. (George Dyson, via Kevin Kelly)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


You may not have had much spare time for reading recently (I haven't) so I'm just catching up with the dust-up between the AP and bloggers. The issue seems to center on whether AP was zealously protecting its content from unauthorized appropriation, or browbeating bloggers who made fair use of small snips and in turn directed valuable traffic back to the service.

Those questions are well engaged by Cory Doctrow, Jeff Jarvis and many others. The New York Times wrote and then blogged about it, too.

Amidst this controversy lurk some significant truths for us. I think Jarvis is fundamentally right (oh Jeff, how it hurts to say it) about what he calls the link ethic in the world of blogospheric information and how he extrapolates that as "the link economy."

His prescription for newspapers may be a little simpleminded, but it's catchy – and it just might be true: Do what you do best, and link to the rest.

It's worth your time to read further. Here's a taste of Jeff:

... there is value in our links and the AP, if it understood this new economy would understand that it is a gift economy and links are presents that can be given or earned but not bought. But the AP is still operating in the content economy, which values control instead. That age has passed.

How will we fulfill the promise?

This discussion on ProPublica is well-deserved praise for Tom Lasseter and associates who produced the Guantanamo: Beyond the Law investigation, and also asks a pertinent question at the end:

McClatchy (and Knight Ridder) have a storied history of "getting the story right" -- from the administration's case for invading Iraq to the politicization at DoJ -- but this week's cutbacks dramatize the critical question facing newsrooms everywhere: how exactly can the company continue to fulfill its promise to keep up the good enterprise work?

I've written about that here, of course, and much good comment and argument ensued. We need to keep talking about how to proceed in ways that keep the mission at the center of our efforts to adapt to new realities.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What we will not do is quit

In the comments following my post yesterday you’ll find an especially thoughtful criticism from Jim Richardson, a longtime colleague who left The Sacramento Bee and the business some years ago. (A gifted political reporter and author, I can’t even say Jim “went over to the dark side,” since he left here for divinity school and is now a priest.)

You can find his remarks in the comment thread from yesterday, but here’s the nut graf:

What I find lacking is a conversation about journalism. How will this impact the core mission of the newspapers to cover our communities, states, the nation and the world? It is fine to talk about strategy and revenues, and the economics of the news business. But that I expect from Gary Pruitt. I especially want to hear you of all people talk about journalism in this environment. How will reporters and editors do their jobs? What's your vision for journalism is this environment? It is fine to say the survivors who are left should focus on their jobs, but how? Doing what? What will not be covered? What beats are going by the boards? And I ask this as a member of the Sacramento community who depends on my newspaper to cover the community and the state. The Sacramento Bee has 151 years of credibility. What are you going to do with it as journalists?

First, I’d say that while yesterday’s post wasn’t much about journalism, this whole blog is. We’ve been talking since 2006 about precisely these issues -- more questions than answers, as a rule, but that’s the nature of reinvention, isn’t it? We truly are going to have to do things differently.

Secondly, let me follow the old city desk advice to be specific rather than general. Hours after the layoffs were announced yesterday, newsrooms in Raleigh and Charlotte made another announcement: the two are, in effect, combining sports staffs, N.C. capitol bureaus and libraries and will be coordinating features coverage. This means fewer editors and more reporters, less duplication, more coverage. In N&O Editor John Drescher’s words to me, “We’re going to be breaking more news and producing more enterprise.”

The memo to staffs there included this summary:

These are bold moves for two outstanding newspapers. We believe that they will help ensure that these papers continue to set the standard for excellence in journalism across North Carolina for many years to come.

We also have many details yet to work out. For that, we’ll need your full support, talent, patience and problem-solving skills. So, please join in and help us now build on these ideas and make them a success.

In an era of stretched resources, our newspapers are very fortunate that we have this opportunity. There are few places in the United States where sister newspapers are as naturally aligned in terms of journalistic values and geography. We want to take full advantage of it for the benefit of all of our readers.

This is part of the way we’ll do it, Jim. McClatchy’s new scale helps with content sharing, allowing papers to stop covering some traditional stories, using colleagues’ work instead and devoting scarce resources to other, unduplicated efforts. (Technology makes this much easier.)

You may remember times when the Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno Bee papers all had separate staffers at the same event. For good (mostly) and ill, that’s over.

I recall a day not long ago when the Sacramento Bee ombudsman criticized his paper for sending only about a dozen staffers to cover some Southern California wildfires. I thought at the time that was misguided; if it happened today, I’d be furious. While there will always be good reasons to send special talents to remote events – a great photographer, perhaps, or a compelling columnist – I flatly dispute the logic of sending a dozen Bee staffers hundreds of miles simply to have staff bylines on a story being covered by hundreds of L.A. Times and other local journalists whose work we can publish and link to. We’re doing things differently now.

McClatchy’s new scale also allows us to share the robust, original journalism of national and international staffers overseas and in Washington. I’ll point with great pride to the series currently featured in our papers and online, Guantanamo: Beyond the Law, as a splendid example of public service journalism that only a committed professional news operation can support. These stories spanned eight months reporting in 11 countries, tracking down more than 60 former detainees who didn’t necessarily want to be found. And they told Americans something they very much need to know.

Finally, I’d point to other efficiencies we’re actively pursuing in order to sustain resourses devoted to journalism. Here’s one: yesterday we also announced a strategic partnership intended to take advantage of upgraded printing capabilities at Pioneer Newspaper facilities in Washington and Idaho to print two of our papers there. Similar discussions naturally are underway elsewhere, as are deals to share distribution forces with neighboring (sometimes competitive) papers, to outsource work outside our core mission, to expand into growing, profitable niches like speciality magazines, and so forth.

Honest to God (sorry, Jim), it really is about reinvention. We’re not just saying that. We’re doing it. Seminars and conferences and workshops aren’t the answer. We need to produce. Asked about some of this by Editor & Publisher today, I said "we are at a place where we have to demonstrate that our plan will work -- we have to perform ..."

We won’t get it all right, certainly not the first time around – and when we screw up, as you see here, we have friends, colleagues and others readily at hand to help point that out.

What we will not do is stand still, and we won’t quit. The work we do is too important, and our commitment too deep for it to be otherwise.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pain & Promises at McClatchy

This is a time of considerable pain at McClatchy, most especially for the 1,400 people who are being told their jobs are gone. That amounts to about 10% of the full-time equivalent workforce at our company. Amongst editorial employees, the total is about nine percent, probably ending up between 310-320 people.

Almost all are people we wish we could keep. The numbers include colleagues with impressive resumes and long tenure who have contributed great things. In places where last-in, first-out rules apply, too many are talented minorities we have worked hard to recruit and retain. At a time of stress and challenge in adapting to new demands, online and elsewhere, moving backward on staffing is doubly painful.

We’ve never done anything like this before. While other news companies went through round after round of broad, across-the-board layoffs, we relied principally on managed attrition to help cut expenses while revenues fell. (Some people also were let go when jobs were outsourced, though never in the newsrooms.) This is a cultural as well as individual trauma for us.

The combined impact of increased media competition and a deepening national recession has forced us to cut more quickly. We hope this aggressive move will spare us another like it down the road, though there are no absolute certainties in today’s volatile environment. We need the the 90% of employees who aren’t in the downsizing to focus on the work at hand with confidence, not be looking over their shoulders for another round of layoffs. I hope we can achieve that.

I expect some employees at the “old McClatchy” papers will see this as confirmation that the company changed irrevocably when it bought Knight Ridder. For folks at the former KR papers, I suppose this must be evidence that not as much changed as they hoped.

Both are wrong, in my view. The economic squeeze we’re in right now has nothing to do with greed or corporate culture, or even business mistakes. It has everything to do with a radically changing business environment and with revenues, which, for us, have fallen by hundreds of millions of dollars. Airlines are canceling flights, laying off crews and charging for checked luggage. More than 65,000 jobs have been lost on Wall Street. Auto workers and real estate agents are working at Starbucks.

I wrote here just a week ago about why I think it’s foolish to predict the death of newspaper companies like ours on the basis of simpleminded dichotomies. Yes, there are powerful forces at play that have changed the old rules of the game forever. Yes, there are cyclical economic forces that have deeply compounded our pain.

But while we are not immune from those forces, neither are we stupid. We’ve recognized for some time that irrevocable changes were afoot, that business-as-usual was no strategy for the future. Because we didn’t simply renounce the print franchise (which, as I keep mentioning, is a $40+ billion-a-year industry that reaches half the adults in America every day), some critics attach the label "dinosaur" and predict imminent demise. What they have failed (or refused) to note is the rapid transformation we’re already undergone, and the latent potential for more change in our future.

Integrated multimedia news and information companies employing sophisticated newsrooms and big sales departments (that’s us) can assemble big, growing audiences. And while Google’s AdSense and related technologies have changed the advertising/revenue paradigm, growing audience remains the best predictor of future success for any media company.

We have to tailor this 151-year old company differently to operate profitably and respond efficiently in the new arena. With an advertising recession layered on top of the other changes, we found we had to move faster than we wanted, and that required the layoffs we announced today. Some things you simply cannot control.

But some things you can, and our response to this period of challenge is one of those. I can assure you that thousands of McClatchy employees, like me, will take some time to grieve the loss of colleagues being laid off and to curse the conditions that led to it, and then go back to work producing quality public service journalism.

We will be around doing that at McClatchy for a very long time to come. If any of you doomsayers would like to put some money where your mouth is on that prediction, you know where to find me.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

NPR on Guantanamo series

Click to hear NPR's Andrea Seabrook interview McClatchy's Tom Lasseter about the series "Guantanamo: Beyond the Law," an examination of how America detained the wrong people, abused them and created a school for jihad.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guantanamo: Beyond the law

For more than six years, the United States has held hundreds of men at Guantanamo — "the worst of the worst," in the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the truth was different. McClatchy tracked down 66 men released from Guantanamo in the most systematic survey to date of prisoners held there. Many had no connection to terrorism, but their experience turned them against America.

See a preview here.

Echos and elaboration from Anchorage

The Anchorage Press is an alternative weekly in my hometown that, through much of its incarnation, feels like it existed mainly to bedevil the Anchorage Daily News. (You have to have something to be alternative to, after all, and that probably explains much.)

This week I noticed with some interest an engaging and thoughtful column there by Keista DeGeorge about a subject near to my heart: me.

Well, not me, exactly, but my recent column on news media prospects, punctuated evolution and all that.

I recommend it, Here's a chunk:

Weaver thinks his company’s DNA is changing rapidly enough to keep pace with this new crop of media (and you can’t blame him: for more than a decade he’s been one of the main architects of McClatchy’s strategies in this arena):

“McClatchy's adaptation is well underway,” he writes. “We’re becoming an integrated multimedia company that delivers value-added news and information across many platforms—filling a niche that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but now holds bright promise for companies who can make the necessary adaptations.”

That last sentence is where the red flags start to poke out. When a journalist of Weaver’s caliber lapses into corporate-speak, a little suspicion is in order. What are these “necessary adaptations”? One anonymous commenter, claiming to be a reporter for McClatchy’s Raleigh newspaper the News and Observer, asks whether it means layoffs, and a few sentences later in Weaver’s post comes a line that won’t allay that journalist’s fears much: “The work will grow more sophisticated and staffs, even if smaller, will need to be smarter and more sophisticated, too.”

But downsizing staffs won’t necessarily alter an organization’s DNA. To be fair, Weaver does offer a bit more insight—shedding stock tables, for instance, or adding online databases. But only a bit. The question of how exactly McClatchy plans to alter itself enough to fit whatever niches Weaver and company envision for it remains mostly unanswered by the end of the post.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Joe Kieta's moving on

McClatchy's Merced Sun-Star editor, Joe Kieta, is leaving the paper to become editor of the Observer-Dispatch, a Gatehouse paper in Utica, NY. Details are available in the Sun-Star story online here.

For my part, let me just say I'm sorry to see him go and will miss the energy, enthusiasm and alacrity Joe brought to our company during this crucial time for journalism. Anybody whose website had a video of a reporter being tasered and a story about teenagers being caught having sex in a department store on the same day obviously understands something about the new media landscape.

Bon voyage, Joe. I'll send you one of my old snow shovels from Alaska days.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

McClatchy's punctuated evolution

Newspaper people nowadays are understandably consumed with questions and debates about the future of their business, often conflating that with the fate of journalism or even democracy itself. That linkage is not without merit, but it introduces an unfortunate “either/or” argument that obscures many possible alternatives.

The construct that says something must be either up or down, dead or alive, old or new dominates Western thinking, but it’s at odds with observable reality. Life in general and questions like this in particular rarely resolve into tidy binary conclusions: Yes/No. Most of life is Maybe/Sometimes and Partly/Not Quite.

Digital triumphalists, who always seem to handle hyperbole better than subtlety, delight in apocalyptic views. Print revenue is falling faster than online revenue is growing to replace it, therefore newspaper companies will fail. (This ignores the fact that expenses and margins can also fall, as they are). Older people read newspapers more than younger ones, therefore newspaper companies are doomed. (This suggests we give up our 50% print readership base before extending to other platforms as well. Huh?) Some newspaper companies are stupid and slow, therefore all newspaper companies will be eclipsed. (Just watch).

Every painful bend in the road between yesterday’s newspaper and tomorrow’s new platforms will be over-interpreted as definitive. Circulation falls? Death spiral. Layoffs? Told you so. Stock price plummets? See, Wall Street agrees.

On our side of the debate, sadly, there are still influential voices who seem to argue that all will be fine if non-profits just subsidize newspapers so we can keep doing exactly what we’ve always done. They argue for an immutable law that says sports news, city council stories and classified ads ought to be bundled into one, ultra-profitable package, and no other arrangement is allowed. Citizens who don’t read the paper ought to have their voter registration cards taken away.

God, what a lot of crap it all is.

Real life doesn’t come in such tidy packages, and real answers don’t emerge from smug commentary. In this world, the work of the Lord gets done by the hands of human beings, and we’re on our own in slogging the twisted, muddy road to salvation.

As McClatchy navigates that path, here’s what the landscape looks like from where I sit. While we’ve often been insulated from the worst traumas in our industry (Knight Ridder and Times Mirror, for instance, are gone), we’re certainly not immune. Revenues continue to be bleak, and it is increasingly apparent that fundamental shifts in competition and audience (combined with cyclical economic woes) demand permanent structural changes. Though many encouraging signs point us toward future success (total audience and online revenues are indeed growing at double-digit rates, for instance) the overall picture is undeniably changing.

Put it plainer: newspaper companies will make less money, get smaller and face greater competition. As a result, we’ll have to become more efficient, make smarter choices and allocate resources to our essential activities.

But shouting “Death spiral!” every time we make those adjustments is either willfully ignorant or malevolent.

I wrote here in 2006 about how I thought the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium described the process we’re going through. I believe that more today than I did then. The theory holds that evolution advances in bursts of adaptation and cellular creativity brought on by changed conditions; in that respect, we’re in a Cambrian explosion in the media business nowadays.

McClatchy's adaptation is well underway. We’re becoming an integrated multimedia company that delivers value-added news and information across many platforms – filling a niche that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but now holds bright promise for companies who can make the necessary adaptations. We will be a smaller, more efficient company serving an expanding audience. We’ll leave some traditional functions behind (think stock tables) and embrace new opportunities like online database presentations. The work will grow more sophisticated and staffs, even if smaller, will need to be smarter and more sophisticated, too.

And we will do all this from an unchanging base of public service journalism. Matt Thompson and others are rightly asking, “What is it about newspapers (or journalism) that needs saving?” My answer is that it’s the animating principle – honest, independent, trustworthy information that advances the public interest – that matters most. Given that foundation, we can build all kinds of structures that meet specific needs.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Program your TIVO now

From the E&P website:

'E&P' Editor on Bill Moyers' Show on Friday -- With McClatchy's Walcott and Landay

By E&P Staff

Published: June 05, 2008 4:10 PM ET
NEW YORK E&P Editor Greg Mitchell appears with McClatchy's Washington editor John Walcott and its investigative reporter Jonathan Landay on "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS stations this Friday night.

The lengthy segment probes the press reaction to Scott McClellan's new book "What Happened," the new Senate report on cooked intelligence in the runup to the attack on Iraq in 2003, and the possible threat of a U.S. move on Iran.

Walcott and Landay have been hailed by E&P, and others, many times for being among the most persistent, and accurate, in questioning the administration's evidence in the runup to the war. Mitchell's new book covers five years of war coverage, and is titled So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.

The Moyers show may air later in the weekend over some stations that are showing "pledge week" programming.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Clear path to clearer thinking

Critical thinking is one of the key "valued added" components we can offer to differentiate our content from generic, commodity news and data that floods the infosphere.

An important aspect of that is understanding probability and statistics. Doing the Democrat delegate math made it clear months ago Hillary Clinton was almost certainly not able to win, but superficial reports kept talking about the "razor-thin" margin between them and so forth. Similarly, we often buy into conventional wisdom and shallow thinking when we'd be doing readers much better service by aplying tough-minded, clear-eyed analysis instead.

Here's a post in which Cory Doctrow writes in the Guardian about how and why humans are willing to gamble in casinos and stand in long security lines – even though neither is likely to pay off for them. It's an entertaining read, and also a powerful lesson.

Here's a taste;please forgive Cory for his exclamation point (he's young):

Our innumeracy means that our fight against these super-rarities is likewise ineffective. Statisticians speak of something called the Paradox of the False Positive. Here's how that works: imagine that you've got a disease that strikes one in a million people, and a test for the disease that's 99% accurate. You administer the test to a million people, and it will be positive for around 10,000 of them – because for every hundred people, it will be wrong once (that's what 99% accurate means). Yet, statistically, we know that there's only one infected person in the entire sample. That means that your "99% accurate" test is wrong 9,999 times out of 10,000!