Media reporters chronicle their own demise; L.A. Times to Cut 300
It’s been a particularly grim seven days. Amid colossal layoffs, plunging revenues and a bleeding Wall Street, media reporters found themselves on the front lines — chronicling their own demise.
Amy Kaufman | January 29, 2009 @ 7:49 PM
Last Updated: February 2, 2009 @ 3:29 PM
this article was last updated on Monday, Feb. 2:
New York Observer print media reporter John Koblin spent Wednesday trying to figure out the odds of survival of America’s paper of record.
New earnings reports showed that the New York Times Co. had lost $57.8 million in 2008 and was putting its stake in the Boston Red Sox up for sale, in a bid to find enough cash to keep operating.
It was that kind of week for media reporters, on the front lines of chronicling the demise of their own institutions. (Oddly enough, the same week as the launch of this digital publication, TheWrap.) But even in the context of this period of colossal layoffs, plunging revenues and bleeding Wall Street, it was a particularly hellish few days.
The Los Angeles Times killed its California section on Friday, the main section that covers local news, and announced upcoming layoffs of 300 staffers, including 70 newsroom workers. The was covered in the paper under this headline: "L.A. paper loses local news section." Rumors are widespread that the foreign desk staff may be elimnated entirely.
Thirty staffers were let go on Monday from Reed Business, which cut employees at Variety, Publishers Weekly, 411, Video Business and Trade Show Week. Now word comes from insiders that Weekly Variety , a 103-year-old publication, may be eliminated.
Page Six Magazine, formerly a weekly, said today it is cutting back to four issues per year.
The Washington Post said it will end regular publication of its weekly Book World section, one of the last remaining stand-alone book review sections left among daily newspapers.
The McClatchy Co. – which publishes 30 newspapers including the Miami Herald and Sacramento Bee – said Tuesday it would it will suspend paying its quarterly dividend "for the foreseeable future" to save cash to help pay off its debts.
And apparently more cuts are on the way at The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, with reports of layoffs and buy-outs of 50 staffers coming next week.
The danger signs at The New York Times – which only about a week ago got a cash infusion of $250 million from Mexican investor Carlos Slim – is a fast-flashing light.
The paper has seen ad revenue tumble at a staggering rate both in print and online. Though digital ad revenue rose 9.3% over the course of 2008, internet ad sales fell 3.5% during the fourth-quarter — an indication that the paper’s Web site is still trying to figure out how to become as profitable as its print version once was.
That probably means more elimination of newsprint. "If we were to lose the Sunday Styles section, would that be a cultural and societal catastrophe? I don’t think so," said Slate’s Jack Shafer. "If we were to lose Friday Escapes section, would it be the death knell for journalism? What is left behind after all these cutbacks? I know that there’s a gargantuan appetite for news and I’m optimistic that people will want to consume news; whether they consume it in a New York Times brand, I’m not sure."
"The Times company has been struggling for a while – every time the results are posted, they’re never good," said Koblin, who writes the Observer’s ‘Off the Record’ column. "But all of the analysts I speak to keep telling me the same story: the company is doing everything it can to stay afloat. One analyst even called the paper’s efforts Herculean. So the bigger question is – will the efforts prove to be enough?"
As the media has gone into freefall in recent months, the job of a media reporter has become increasingly fraught with questions about the likelihood of writing themselves out of a job.
It isn’t for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. The Observer’s Koblin said one of the bigger challenges he faces is pulling an interesting narrative from piles of depressing press releases about the latest cuts.
"Covering New York media is a wonderful, thrilling kind of job, but because I focus on print, a lot of my job has been reporting on layoffs and magazines folding, which isn’t always fun or interesting," he said.
Shafer, who writes the Press Box column for the web magazine Slate, tries to view the death of newspapers with optimism.
"I love newspapers, and at the same time, their dying makes me a mortician – it gives me a lot of work," he said. "I’m romantic about newspapers, but whenever I put on my more historic hat, I see that what’s dying here is not the news but the newspaper. And I still think the newspaper has a long way to go before it’s taken the dirt nap."
During a conference call on Wednesday, Times Co. President-CEO Janet L. Robinson tried to maintain a positive front for investors, saying that though advertisers will likely remain wary about spending ad dollars, the Times could remain a powerhouse as others in the industry falter.
"As other newspapers cut back on international and national coverage — or cease operation — we believe there will be opportunities for The Times to fill this void," Robinson said.
But the Times’ own David Carr, who writes the Media Equation column, believes there’s never been a better time to be a media reporter.
"I’ve been a media reporter for a long time, and for the longest time everyone kept saying ‘the sky is going to fall one day,’ and finally these big pieces of the sky have started to fall," said Carr. "The story is not sad – some if its consequences are. Of course, the print employee in me is fearful about the personal implications. But you can’t spend your whole day hanging funeral crepe everywhere because as a reporter, I feel like this is the story of a lifetime."