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.


  1. Anonymous8:01 PM

    Howard, most people don't believe reporters are trustworthy or objective.

    Latest poll:

    "The perception that reporters are advocates rather than observers is held by 82% of Republicans, 56% of Democrats, and 69% of voters not affiliated with either major party. The skepticism about reporters cuts across income, racial, gender, and age barriers."

    That's one reason readers are fleeing the mainstream media.

    Kevin Gregory
    McClatchy Watch

  2. Anonymous7:36 AM

    Folks, "McClatchy Watch" is just a leaky spigot for the same old pro-war, right-wing drivel, so you're living up to your mantra there, Kevin.

  3. Both the tree-hugging left and the Evangelical right have forsaken the practice of Reason as characterized the Enlightenment. This is why so much dissemination of "information" is more propaganda than data; why folks like Anonymous can mistake his ad-hominem attacks for political discourse.
    It is the "dangerous enthusiasm" of those with political axes to grind which allows them to spread "messages" which favor their causes, rather than seeking to understand objective reality.

  4. Anonymous1:35 PM

    re: "That's one reason readers are fleeing the mainstream media."

    Right ... Fleeing the mainstream media for the "trustworthy" and "objective" journalism of Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore.
    What does that tell us?

  5. Anonymous5:58 AM

    "McClatchy's adaptation is well underway."

    You're talking about the impending layoffs, right?

    Weeks ago, folks in the Raleigh newsroom were told there would be layoffs.

    Since we heard this news, there have been no updates. How many people will lose their jobs? When?

    We don't know. Instead, we're treated to a bunch of pre-emptive hooptedoodle from the guy who runs the company's news division.

    Rather than spin BS, Howard, would you please answer a few substantive questions?

    1. How many people in Raleigh will lose their jobs? With our newsroom budget of $15 million or so, how much money will these cutbacks save? What can we expect our budget to be next year?

    2. How many people will lose their jobs McClatchy-wide? How much money will this save?

    3. In Raleigh, buyouts were recently offered to mid-level editors. Those who took it were given between three and six months severance pay. We can assume that those who are about to get laid off will receive less. We can assume this because those who were laid off in Ft. Worth received six weeks' pay.

    In a recent video address to employees, Gary Pruitt said the company would cut costs "humanely." Is this what he meant, that editors would receive better financial help than reporters?

    4. What is your salary? I am a reporter in Raleigh and make about $44,000. In other words, how many on-the-street people could the company save if it cut your salary?

    Thanks for your time.

  6. Anonymous7:54 AM

    Lets be clear: if you work in newspapers layoffs will be a reality. I really do believe that MNI is trying to be "humane" but the fact is, plain and simple, you are facing layoffs. Anyone who told you differently is a fool.

    How much will be saved with layoffs? About $50-$100k per warm body. This includes benifits. That's a lot of money. PEOPLE are the single largest expense of any company.

    Buyouts are generally based on employment time. 2 weeks salary for every year in service. Were YOU to be offered a buyout it would probably be the same. I say "probably" because it does vary.

    I truely belive that MNI is trying it's best in this "transition". I really do. I do NOT know if MNI's best is good enough. I see a LOT of wrong thinking and disastrous decisions in my corner of MNI (example: continually staffing a web operation with staff with no web experience -- not smart) but there's only so much I can do about it.

  7. Anonymous9:36 AM

    "We can assume this because those who were laid off in Ft. Worth received six weeks' pay."

    This is not true. Those who were laid off in Fort Worth received six months' pay. It's definitely a scary time to be a journalist. But it's amazing how journalists -- who double- and triple-check facts before writing a story and are taught not to believe what they hear without checking -- are so willing to believe rumors when they are related to our industry.

  8. Anonymous10:23 AM

    The above post should say "up to" six months' pay, depending upon seniority.

  9. Anonymous3:58 PM

    Holy naivete, Batman.

    To the anonymous corporate stooge who posted up there that two weeks per year of service is the norm for buyouts in newspapers.

    Here's the deal Polyanna. That is indeed the norm in corporate America outside newspapers. You know, those companies that would kill to have the profit margin that McClatchy newspapers STILL have. Let's face it, boys and girls, we have a larger profit margin than almost all of the companies our newspapers cover. But we have greedy owners who covet their quarterly dividend checks; we have untrained managers who don't know how to manage Wall Street; and newspaper employees are a dime a dozen. Why dispose of them humanely?

    Thus, enter Bloody Monday, tomorrow when more than 1,000 McClathy employees will lose their jobs and be paid severance of six months. That's if they're lucky.

    Man, bring back Tony Ridder. He was a frigging snake. But at least he didn't hide it.

  10. Anonymous11:08 PM

    re Punc Eq, a somewhat apropos Steve Gould quote from The Panda's Thumb (tracked down here )-

    "I will confess to a personal belief that a punctuational view may prove to map tempos of biological and geographic change more accurately and more often than any of its competitors — if only because complex systems in steady state are both common and highly resistant to change. As my colleague British geologist Derek V. Ager writes in supporting a punctuational view of geologic change: ‘The history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.’”"

  11. Anonymous10:12 PM

    Let's revisit this topic...So lets look at reality. Pruitt bought Minn. Star trib. for $1.2 Billion and sells it off for $530 Million. Then the Knight Ridder debacle, I think we see what is causing the down fall of McClatchy. Pruitt makes over 2 million plus stock options! There was no need to make such drastic cuts at many of the papers. While many of the McClatchy papers are being cut severely, others are seeing upgrades to their presses (Merced), and very little in layoffs. I think the upper Mgt. hasn't looked at the whole picture in the proper light. With the layoffs at McClatchy many of the papers will be little more that a news bureau. Morale is low at all of the McClatchy holdings, ex. editors leaving, buy outs, wage freezes, looks like the end is in sight.

  12. Anonymous2:39 AM

    Under the news commons model, we aim for our citizens to come to the voting booth (or the city council meeting or the church supper) armed with the same information from a few reliable sources. So democracy means weighing our common set of facts against our diverse values, and reaching a conclusion respected by all.