Thursday, March 12, 2009

More newspaper layoffs: 50 in Miami Herald newsroom, 4 features writers

There's a list going around of the 50 journalists who lost their jobs at the Miami Herald today in the latest whackety-whack that is to today's newspaper industry what the sound of the teletype was a generation ago.

You'll notice that there are four features reporters' names on it. I counted one business reporter and one sportswriter, and a couple of bureau reporters.

Sadly, this proportion seems to echo what's happening when newspapers make cuts: Features writers are always the first to go, and always the department hit hardest. Even though features is generally one of the smallest departments at any paper, a majority of the reporting jobs lost usually come from there.

When they laid off 20 of us from the newsroom of the Indy Star in December, nearly one-third of the bodies were from the features department (or, using the term employed by senior managers and no one else, the "My Life" department). Four reporters, a copy editor and a page designer lost their jobs. (Technically, the designer was part of the visuals department, but she worked full-time on features products.)

No sportwriters, business writers or any metro reporters were laid off. After features, the department hardest hit was the Northside bureau. If you look at the sort of things they write about in the North tabloid, you'll see that it looks more like a features section than a metro section.

It's depressing that features is always at the bottom of the totem pole, everywhere you go. I spent the first half of my career on the "hard news" side, so I saw first-hand how devalued folks on the "soft news" side were (starting with that term.)

Traditionally, features was where the best writers (i.e., wordsmiths) in the newsroom gravitated. It was the place where they tried to do real storytelling, serious coverage (including criticism) of the arts, and essentially breathe some life into the paper. Yes, there was often some silly and frivolous stuff in the features section, but it balanced out the more sobering (especially these days) timbre of the rest of the paper.

Features is, if you will, the dessert of a satisfying newspaper meal. It should be the part you really want to read, as opposed to the stuff you feel you must read to be a well-informed citizen.

But, when push comes to shove, and dollars turn into cents, newsroom managers in Indianapolis and Miami, and everywhere, always turn to the features department first. Always it was, and always it shall be...

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