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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 / NJ.com 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 / NJ.com 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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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.

Two down, one to go

Posted in Uncategorized on October 2, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

The buyout goal has been met and exceeded. By some accounts more than half the newsroom may have signed papers by 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Many are theorizing that the buyout count for the building could approach 400, doubling the goal set at the beginning of this process.

There is no word yet on whether all will be given the proposed severance package, but that question is moot without agreement from the drivers union.

That may be close according to an account published at NJ.com:

The newspaper also appeared to be close to a settlement with its union drivers, which must be achieved by Oct. 8 to meet the final condition. An agreement with the mailers union was ratified last month.

Publisher George Arwady said in an email to the staff that discussions with the drivers union are continuing and stressed that the deadline is final.

“I urge the Drivers to vote ‘yes’ to protect their own jobs and those of everyone else who works at The Star-Ledger,” Arwady said in his email this evening.

Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications, owner of The Star-Ledger, confirmed that the buyout numbers appear to have been achieved, although he stressed that non-union employees have until the end of business on Oct. 7 to rescind. And he indicated progress with the drivers union.

“The union leadership is in favor of the agreement we reached, but they have not scheduled a vote to my knowledge,” he said.

What will be left when all is done? And what will be done with it? We can only wait and see.

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Two down, one to go

Posted in Uncategorized on October 2, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

The buyout goal has been met and exceeded. By some accounts more than half the newsroom may have signed papers by 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Many are theorizing that the buyout count for the building could approach 400, doubling the goal set at the beginning of this process.

There is no word yet on whether all will be given the proposed severance package, but that question is moot without agreement from the drivers union.

That may be close according to an account published at NJ.com:

The newspaper also appeared to be close to a settlement with its union drivers, which must be achieved by Oct. 8 to meet the final condition. An agreement with the mailers union was ratified last month.

Publisher George Arwady said in an email to the staff that discussions with the drivers union are continuing and stressed that the deadline is final.

“I urge the Drivers to vote ‘yes’ to protect their own jobs and those of everyone else who works at The Star-Ledger,” Arwady said in his email this evening.

Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications, owner of The Star-Ledger, confirmed that the buyout numbers appear to have been achieved, although he stressed that non-union employees have until the end of business on Oct. 7 to rescind. And he indicated progress with the drivers union.

“The union leadership is in favor of the agreement we reached, but they have not scheduled a vote to my knowledge,” he said.

What will be left when all is done? And what will be done with it? We can only wait and see.

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The only thing certain is when the door closes

Posted in Uncategorized on October 1, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Perhaps someone should tell Mona that ALL CAPS in an email is the equivalent of yelling. Tuesday’s note may have come off a bit strong as a result. Here it is:

THE DEADLINE FOR SIGNING UP FOR THE BUYOUT IS 5:00 P.M. WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2008. PLEASE CONTACT HUMAN RESOURCES IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS OR IF YOU WANT TO SIGN UP FOR THE BUYOUT.

Thank you.

Has the pace of visitors to Human Resources become so heavy there is concern about getting out on time? And what will happen if the number of buyout takers tops the numbers targeted at the beginning?

Rumors are rampant. Some say buyouts will be granted to everyone who signed, regardless of how many. Others speculate some criteria may be in place to determine who will get the buyout and who will get shoved back into the mix here. If anybody really knows they probably aren’t talking about it.

But it is funny how perceptions change. Some who had major concerns about signing for the buyout are now afraid they won’t get it, either because there will be too many takers or because the drivers won’t sign. On the other hand, stock market woes may have some who signed a month ago wondering if they can still back out.

Then there are the questions about when we will all discover our fate. Some reports say the unions have until Oct. 5 to ratify an agreement. Because of the 7 day waiting period on buyouts there will be no solid number on takers before Oct. 8. Some say word will be delayed even longer than that, keeping everyone on edge for just a bit longer.

It’s a confusing and anxious time.

What should one do?  Roll the dice and take a chance. Everything is a gamble these days; nothing is certain anymore. Nothing except that the door to human resources closes at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 1.

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Buyout count

Posted in Uncategorized on September 27, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

Rumor has it that the Ledger editorial department has tallied upwards of 170 takers for the buyout, well beyond the 100-130 that had been sought. Coupled with the equally rumored total of 100-plus for the rest of the building and another hurdle would appear to be passed toward meeting the demands for continued Newhouse stewardship of The Star-Ledger.

Another bird tells me the editorial department at Trenton may have signed on en toto for the buyout.

There can be no sighs of relief just yet. There is no deal with the drivers, thus everything could still come apart. And if it does go through the questions will only be beginning about how to produce our product(s) with a staff that could be halved? Likewise, will what we will be producing bear much resemblance to what we make now?

Four days to the Oct. 1 deadline and then a week past that to find out if it all held together. T-minus 11 and counting toward our future, whether this deal makes it off the launch pad or not.

The end is nigh?

Posted in Rambling, Uncategorized on September 26, 2008 by sizzlingjboy

I saw Sharon Adarlo’s email invite to an “End is Nigh” party at Mompou Tapas Lounge on Thursday night. I wondered if she knew something the rest of us didn’t. Heck I wondered if it was even for Star-Ledger folks since there didn’t seem to be any on the CC list. It appeared to be predominantly TV and radio people, judging by the email domains.

But based on what the invite said I also wondered if the broadcast media were facing some of the same issues as the rest of us.

Get together in honor of all our beloved colleagues who are going on to new jobs, or maybe better careers (with likely more job security).
So let’s give a nice toast to our buddies, as well as the dying profession we so love 🙂

So maybe the end is near. What’s killing me is wondering how it will all turn out. Buying a round for all of my colleagues, beloved or otherwise, would be a hell of a lot easier if I had a buyout check in my pocket.