Saturday, April 4, 2009

New York Times treats its other papers shabbily

The New York Times has been hard hit by the downturn that has affected virtually all newspaper operations. But its executives like to boast that the size of its newsroom has not significantly diminished. It now stands at around 1,300, by far the largest of any news-gathering operation in the U.S., despite a round of mild layoffs last year.

Much has been written about CEO Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s strategy (mostly recently in Mark Bowden's sprawling Vanity Fair piece, here) to keep the NYT brand strong during the economic crisis, with the idea that they will emerge with a stronger market position compared to other corporations that have wielded the ax less judiciously.

I applaud this goal, since it recognizes what to me is an obvious canard: If you cut journalists, you diminish the product, giving people less of a reason to read it or advertise in it, which inevitably leads to more cuts. Newspaper execs who lop reporters, editors and other journalists to meet short-term financial goals are simply managing decline -- or, to use a Midwestern phrase I once heard from a senior editor who dared to recognize reality, "we're eating our seed corn." (She, having the brains to grasp this, has since left the business.)

But a little-told story is what's happening at the other newspapers in the New York Times Company. Not much gets written about them, since they are mostly smaller papers in the South. The exception being the Boston Globe, where every slice and chop is dutifully recognized by the national media. The newest, and alarming, development there is the NYT's threat to close down the Globe unless the unions immediately agree to a $20 million cut (here's the link).

Well, I proudly worked for the NYT Co. for nearly eight years at their Ocala, Fla., paper. And let me tell you, what's happening there and at other papers in the New York Times Regional Media Group makes what's happening in Boston look like sunshine and roses.

A friend of mine (who still works there) started at The Star-Banner a few years before I did, in the mid-1990s. At that time, he said, the newsroom numbered just less than 100. It had shrunk by the time I arrived in 1998, and hovered in the 60s. We had our own cuts and a round of layoffs during the early 2000s recession, which brought it down to about 60 when I left in 2005.

Want to know how many journalists are in the Ocala newsroom now? Fifty-five? Fifty? Forty?

Try 20.

That's right, it's not MediaNews or Gannett that cut a newsroom by nearly 80 percent from its peak, but the vaunted New York Times Co.

The Ocala newsroom was merged with the Gainesville Sun about 40 miles to the north. A few people got transferred up there, but about 30 people got lopped in a single day. I still remember the wistful note I got from one of the survivors. After listing all the number of reporters, editors, page designers and photographers who lost their jobs that day, he summed it up: "We lost much pride today."

Things are similar at other NYTRMG papers. A friend at another Florida paper who was chief of a scrappy outlying bureau is now a one-man operation. They've been through so many rounds of layoffs that people have lost count. Those who are left are dazed and demoralized, not to mention heaped with more work than they could ever keep up with. Stories are similar at other papers in Florida, Louisiana and California.

So I have to say, as much as I respect Sulzberger and the NYT brand, it grinds my hide every time I read about how the flagship paper has essentially kept their newsroom stable. Meanwhile, they've cut their less prominent papers with reckless abandon.

Of course, you won't read anything about this from the Howie Kurtzes and Romeneskos. They concentrate on the big-city operations. So if the New York Times cannibalizes its smaller titles to keep the flagship looking good, few people will know. Personally, I think it's news fit to print.

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