Gannett, my former employer, laid off two percent of its workforce this week. But that’s just a number in a financial story. What it means is that about 350 people lost their jobs. It means 350 families have to figure out, at some level, how to pay the bills.
It means that communities are losing valuable reporters, people who reported important news and told important stories. It’s happening here in Rochester, where I live, where Jon Hand and Kevin Oklobzija — two outstanding reporters — were let go. One friend who still works for Gannett called it a “bloodbath.”
Five years ago, when I was writing my masters’ thesis at Syracuse University, I wrote that there was a sense among reporters and editors that the worst of the layoffs/buyouts/attrition job losses was over. That may be the case, but news like this is shocking.
Because you realize that for the newspaper industry, things aren’t getting better. They’re just not.
Last week, Jack Shafer got the digital journalism world talking about a study that suggests newspapers rushed too quickly into the digital world and would have been better off trying to maintain their print presence. I need to spend time with the original study before I feel I can comment on this, but I’m skeptical of this idea.
But the point is not to lay blame. There’s really no point in trying to figure out what the industry did wrong in the 1990s or the early 2000s. That’s arguing about who left the gate unlocked, but your dog has not only run away, he’s living at a new house in the country.
The point is this — ever since the 1990s, the general mindset around the newspaper industry about digital has been “at some point, somebody’s gonna figure this out. Soon, somebody’s gonna figure out how to make money publishing news online.” The unspoken second part of that sentence is that “and then things will go back to the way they were.” Before digital. Back when newspapers had a 30-percent profit margin and were flush with reporters and editors.
Somebody’s gonna figure it out.
We’ve been saying that for 20 years.
Maybe it’s time to realize that we’re not going to figure out. Maybe it’s time to realize that digital news is a different beast than print news. Maybe it’s time to let the memories of the glory days or of the missed opportunities go and focus on making the best digital product for people.
Weeks like this suck. For journalists, for readers, for communities. There’s no other way to say it.
We’ve been hoping things will get better for 20 years now.
Maybe hoping isn’t enough anymore.