Mar 3, 2008

Dissecting the autopsies

The cuts have been made and now media observers are trying to figure out what it all means. Twenty two reporters and editors lost their jobs at the Los Angeles Daily News, another 9 jobs were eliminated at the Torrance Daily Breeze and 9 at the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

One assumption I've seen repeated over and over, including at the Los Angeles Times, is that the economy is the reason for the staff cuts. Here's what Mark Madler has to say about it at the San Fernando Valley Business Journal: This time around a weak economy is to blame for the Daily News job losses and those at other papers. Advertising revenues continue to drop, not helped by the mortgage meltdown, the credit crunch and high gas prices.

I think that's wrong.

The current economic downturn played a role in the timing of the cuts, but it's not the reason the cuts happened. Reducing staff is one of the least effective ways to address a short-term economic crisis. Rather, MediaNews long ago devised a blueprint for consolidation of its Southern California newspapers to create a business model it believes will be successful over the long term. The bad economic picture provided the rationale to get it done at this moment.

Newspapers across the country are contending with what insiders call the "downward trend lines" in advertising and circulation. The idea is that whatever happens in the short run, papers will continue to lose subscribers and advertising dollars at a steady rate for the foreseeable future.

Different papers are dealing with this issue in different ways. The Los Angeles Times appears to be buying into the philosophy that going local is a safer, and cheaper, bet over the long term. MediaNews wants to eliminate the redundancies it sees among the papers in the chain. This means concentrating a few resources at individual papers to exploit a perceived strength while consolidating the rest.

Look at who lost jobs at the Daily News. Almost all of the reporters covered beats (the NFL, baseball, Washington, DC) that could be filled either by wire services or copy taken from "sister" papers. The remainder - editorial assistants, an editor emeritus, a music critic, a librarian - are positions considered luxuries in a chain that will rely more on common pages and online updates.

The cuts made at the Daily Breeze and the Press-Telegram were more obviously part of this consolidation plan. The P-T is now a bureau of the Daily Breeze and both papers will become feeders to the Daily News. Indeed, the Daily Breeze is getting an expanded copy desk out of this because it will become the hub for entertainment and features reporting for the chain.

Yes, the chain. That's the word to remember here. The Daily News, the Press-Telegram and the Daily Breeze all have long and storied histories. None of them wants to lose its identity or autonomy. Yet that's exactly what has to happen for the MediaNews dream to come true.

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