Archive for October, 2008

In Preperation for Wednesday’s meeting — Pt. 2

Posted in Uncategorized on October 29, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

At a 4 p.m. meeting  today (Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008) Jim Willse will give those in the editorial department a “first cut at how we’ll be planning for transition” from the old to the new Star-Ledger and then allow “discussion of same.”

Rather than wait, I would like to toss out some ideas that might be good to consider as The Star-Ledger moves into this period of planning for transition to an editorial department and newspaper that has cut staffing by more than 40 percent and may soon be experiencing revenue and circulation reductions of near 20 percent.

To be clear, though, these thoughts aren’t necessarily mine (though I am in agreement with them). Most come from some of our own editors and others with whom they recently met to discuss ways to help revive or preserve journalism in the digital age.

A few days ago Jim Willse and John Hassell (who departs today for a position at Advance Internet) participated in the New Business Models for News Summit at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Find a full list of participants here.

The event was called to bring together “a diverse group of editorial and business executives, entrepreneurs, and academics” for presentations and discussions on how to develop new business models for the news industry. Willse acted as leader for a discussion on News Organizations while Hassell served as rapporteur for the Newsroom Efficiencies group.

The most radical thoughts came from Hassell’s group. Charged with finding new newsroom efficiencies they came up with a few things our newspaper might want to discontinue. Among them: staff coverage of national sports, national entertainment and national/international news. They also recommended dropping the editorial page.

Summit moderator Jeff Jarvis often puts it this way: Focus on what you do best and link to the rest. I would simply say that if we can’t do it better than everyone else (e.g. ESPN, Rotten Tomatoes and The WaPost/NY Times, respectively), we shouldn’t do it with our dwindling staff.

Hassell’s group “decided to focus on a market like Philadelphia or Dallas and, rather than tweaking the existing daily newspaper model, to start fresh with an online-only news organization.”

They imagined a staff of 35 consisting of:
-Content creators who do blogging/photography/video/curation of beats: 20
-Community managers who do outreach, mediation, social media evangelism: 3
-Programmers/developers: 2
-Designers/graphics artists: 2
-Producers who do site management, etc.: 5
-Editors: 3

Staff levels were a product of revenue calculations: “A website with 800 million page views/year at $5 rpm, [would generate] total revenue of $4 million. We set aside $2.1 million of that revenue to pay an editorial staff of 35 FTEs $60,000/year.”

While such a staff seems ridiculously small for an operation such as The Star-Ledger, which attempts to cover the entire state of New Jersey, it does offer an interesting concept for our organization.

What if The Ledger / formed a number of such groups (some even smaller than this model) that are tightly focused on specific coverage where there is a sure audience and at least the opportunity for making a clear advertising connection? Examples would be high school and college sports with built-in alumni audiences and/or geographic locales; state government; and local communities.

Each would have independent web sites (i.e. not part of a confusing, monolithic structure that attempts to aggregate everything about everything — not that there is anything wrong with that) and print products that are direct reverse publishing of the content (generated by professional and citizen journalists, as well as commenters). The reverse published print products could be inserted into the more traditional newspapers or sold as stand-alone periodicals in order to tap whatever revenue remains for news on paper advertising.

Perhaps we could experiment with an idea like this in Trenton given that the recent buyouts have almost completely eliminated the editorial staff at The Times.

In Willse’s group, his announcement of the staff cuts at our newspaper led to a questions about advertising, production costs and why “newspapers [are] firing journalists to deal with losses from the industrial side, when it is content that … is ultimately valuable, content that is the future, and printing presses are what is leading to lost [sic].”

Group participant Bob Garfield from On The Media, put it this way: “What the hell are we doing laying off the journalists when we should be laying off the presses?”

Group members were asked if newspapers could survive in a web-only world and the consensus was that remains impossible — at least for publicly held newspapers. However, they also agreed that newspapers are letting revenue opportunities slip away.

What those opportunities are is not mentioned specifically in the recap. But there are many that have not been grasped at The Star-Ledger / due largely to a one-dimensional and confusing web presence that appears to lack an effective advertising sales strategy.

One revenue idea was out-sourced ad sales. That concept may be a necessity for hyper-local sales, but the lower costs will be offset by a smaller split of revenue for the news organization.

Another was public support via direct contributions. The model sounds almost like creating an E-bay for projects where story ideas will need a minimum audience bid before they can be pursued. While interesting and potentially useful in a number of ways (e.g. direct response to audience desires, a method for gaining audience participation even at the story-concept stage), this is a pretty scary way to cover news.

Ultimately, the groups didn’t come to many conclusions on almost anything. In fact, much of it isn’t even new. Some concepts close to these were floated about three years ago during the re-envisioning The Ledger meetings.

The real issue isn’t ideas. There are smart people at The Ledger who have spent a lot of time considering new and different ways the paper could do business in the future (of course, many of them have left or will be leaving in the next couple of months).

The question isn’t really whether there is material for The Star-Ledger to begin planning for an inevitable transition. Discussions have been ongoing for years and the staff-reduction process began three months ago.

The bottom line is whether anything different will be done. Will transition mean real change or trying to continue business as usual on both the print and internet side with far less people? Maybe we can start the discussion there.

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AP on notice

Posted in Company news on October 28, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

According to Editor & Publisher, The Star-Ledger is one of several daily newspapers discussing the formation of content-sharing consortium that could provide them with state or regional feeds in place of those provided by The Associated Press.

The story says:

A “Northeast Consortium” of newspapers, which will include New York’s Daily News … Newsday, The Buffalo News, the Times-Union of Albany, N.Y., and the Star Ledger of Newark, N.J. is weeks away from announcing a content-sharing arrangement that will include both stories and photos.

One executive who spoke on condition of anonymity and who attended the “summit” of New York-area papers, held in Manhattan within the past two weeks, cited cost savings, more timely exchange of content, and what that executive called “a new spirit of cooperation” as the primary motivations for such an undertaking. This source referred to the “Draconian terms” of the AP, which last Thursday responded to newspapers’ concerns by announcing further rate cuts and restructuring.

I’m not privy to our AP fees, but The Columbus Dispatch, with daily circulation more than 100,000 lower than The Star-Ledger, pays $800,000 a year, according to E&P.

But this isn’t just about money, according to the story’s source.

“It’s fair to say that newspapers across America are upset with the treatment they get from the AP,” the executive said. “Newspapers are now taking the view that they want to take events into their own hands. The truth of it is, there is a real desire to get better content, shared among people in non-competitive markets.”

AP is responding to the rising tide of dissatisfaction by freezing or lowering fees and discontinuing its tier structure for distribution of text.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer is apparently already part of such a group made up of Ohio newspapers.


In Preperation for Wednesday’s meeting — Pt. 1

Posted in Rambling on October 28, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

As in the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign, change is the topic for the staff meeting has been called in the newsroom for 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The question isn’t simply what will be discussed, but also whether that change will be significant enough to keep The Star-Ledger going.

The announcement says the short gathering will be to hear a “first cut at how we’ll be planning for transition” and then “discussion of same.”

I might wish for something a bit more concrete. The buyout process began about three months ago and the first wave of the orchestrated exits is that same day. It seems a little late to be discussing the process for how we will be planning.

Still, since we’re just getting started, I have some thoughts about what I would like to hear at the meeting and see occur.

I’m hoping this first cut won’t deal primarily with a shuffling of offices and consolidation of production responsibilities. I’m hoping it won’t be a hollow more-with-less pep talk. I really don’t want to hear we’re going to make it up as we go along.

I’m hoping that there is (or will be) a real plan and that it indicates the newspaper, maybe the entire Newhouse group, is ready to make the difficult choices required to keep going. Cutting staff by nearly 50 percent has been extremely painful; an operation performed with a meat cleaver. But it will be even worse if the patient, now a double-amputee, remains on permanent life-support or dies.

Beyond the newsroom I’m hoping that there will be changes that fix the dysfunctionalities in advertising between online and print that the publisher has mentioned in his monthly meetings with staff. I’m hoping that there will be sweeping changes in how things are done at Advance Internet that will provide for a coherent, cooperative and modern web strategy that fully leverages the creativity, insight and abilities of those working for Newhouse even if they don’t happen to be at an internet property. I’m hoping that there will be changes in how all of the New Jersey newspapers — maybe all the Newhouse papers — work together and share content.

I know, I’m hoping for a lot. Heck, all of that isn’t where I’d stop, it’s just a start. And maybe it doesn’t really matter to those of us who have been lopped off. But if The Ledger can’t change now, then it won’t change. And that would be a shame.

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Surprise: Times gets new publisher

Posted in Company news on October 27, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Richard Bilotti, longtime publisher of The Times of Trenton, announced Thursday he will retire in November.

The departure of Bilotti, who spent almost 25 years at the newspaper’s helm, is hardly unexpected. Most of the staff, including almost everyone in the editorial department, has been granted a buyout that will see them leaving by the end of this year.

What came as a bit of a curveball was the promotion of Brian Malone to replace Bilotti.

It isn’t just that Malone may not have a staff. Based on statements made by The Star-Ledger’s publisher, the plans for the Times involve it becoming essentially a re-masted version of The Ledger with a hyper-local online presence.

However, as with so many other things these days, plans seem to change on an almost daily basis. Likewise there often seems a lot of leeway between what is said and what actually occurs.

Regardless, Malone will need more than congratulations in his new post. But we offer it anyway.

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Thanks for all the work; there’s the door

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

After months of waiting word finally came down today regarding buyouts. In the newsroom a hastily convened meeting (announced at 11:33 a.m. for noon) gave the word that all but a few of the 169 people who signed for the buyout would get it.

But the announcement wasn’t nearly as stunning as the immediate aftermath. Within minutes of th meeting e-mails were out to some staffers telling them their exit date would be as early as Wednesday. People who had been waiting for word so they could plan their lives were given a weekend plus a few days to fill a bankers box and get out.

Nearly as stunning for department heads — thwarted in attempts to plan how they would continue business after losing significant numbers of personnel — was the realization that there would be little time for such things. Many of their people might be gone before next week is out.

Some might call this classless. To others it is simply mystifying and daunting. There seems to be no blueprint for how we will do business tomorrow with half the staff of yesterday.

Notes from Publisher’s meeting

Posted in Company news on October 17, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

According to reports, the following topics came up at October publisher’s meeting:

1. The publisher would not confirm just how many buyouts had been applied for. He was pressed on this issue but refused to budge despite acknowledging there is no good reason for keeping the number under wraps.

2. Notification of those whose buyouts have been accepted should begin taking place within days. Most recipients will be informed in the very near future. He said it has been delayed by two factors: a) An ongoing debate between he and the news editor over how many should be accepted. b) Conflicting opinions over whether replacements should be hired for any of those beyond the targeted number (200-230) who are given buyouts.

3. Once the buyout recipients have been identified, they will be let go in waves. Wave one will be dispatched Nov. 1; wave two will go out the door Dec. 1, and the balance will depart Dec. 31. The publisher said there were advantages in having the majority go early.

4. The entire cost of the buyouts will be charged to Calendar Year 2008’s operations.

5. The budget for 2009 will show the S-L returning to profitability despite continued erosion of ad revenue premised on the demise of Circuit City, the loss of some car dealerships and the continued slump in real estate.

6. A  company cost saver under consideration is the elimination or reduction of the annual bonuses next year.

7. The newspaper will likely leave the current building within the next 2-3 years.

8. The Trenton Times will largely become a web-focused, hyper-local experiment for the Ledger.

What’s so funny?

Posted in Rant on October 16, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Some newsroom folks yesterday began gleefully circulating via email an anonymous blog post from They seemed to believe it was funny and/or apropos. Following is the originating email.

Sent:   10/14/2008 7:22 PM
Subject:        mmmmm…….

I wonder what paper this posting on came from:

The photo department at my newspaper is a joke. There are more “photo editors” than there are photos in the daily paper.

These scumbags sit around and watch TV and always manage to royally fuck up something every single motherfucking night. Then they have the balls to cop an attitude about it. Everyone makes mistakes now and then – have the balls to admit it once in awhile and apologize.

Listen up assholes, YOU ARE PHOTOGRAPHERS AND PHOTO SCANNERS. Grow the fuck up and get to work already. Since you think you’re so much better than the reporters and editors then I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see you try to do my job. Oops, wait, you can’t even properly perform the tasks for which you receive a weekly paycheck.

Oh, and stop blaming late, incorrectly named, too small/too big or missing photos on “this stupid system.” That excuse is pathetic and we see right through the little power games you play.

I’m so glad most of you jackasses are leaving. We don’t need you in the first place. Someone finally woke the fuck up and realized the lazy, insolent and arrogant photo-fucks aren’t needed to pick and choose “the best” photos. Do you think reporters and editors can’t judge a decent photo?

You are NOT journalists. You give creative, hard-working, competent photojournalists a bad name.

Reading this made me wonder: Is this funny? Maybe one of these guys could explain the joke? Do they think this is representative of our photo department? Do they agree with the poster that photo editors and photographers are not journalists?

I have always felt that the hallmark of good people and a great company was how they pulled together when times got tough. Obviously management here isn’t doing much to bring the team together. But it is pretty disappointing to see newsroom staffers adding to the toxic atmosphere by circulating or, perhaps, authoring crap like this.

The exodus of talented people has already begun. Good people from every department are on their way out.

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