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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   December/January 2008  issue

Doing Less with Less   

How about some straight talk to go along with newspaper transformation?


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

I'm a pretty big First Amendment guy, although certainly not as big as the late (and great) Dick Schmidt, the longtime general counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

"My father said I was born to be a First Amendment lawyer," Dick said back in 1997 when he accepted the Media Institute's Freedom of Speech Award. "He said that when I was a child, I ran into the fire station and yelled, 'Theater!'"

But while I'm a First Amendment guy, I do accept the notion that there are some limits to free speech, things that are simply beyond the pale and just cannot be tolerated. And I've bumped up against one of them way too often: the expression "do more with less."

This one has been getting quite a workout in the news business in recent years.

As even a casual visitor to Romenesko knows, newspapers have been pummeled by cutbacks as readers and advertisers have gravitated online and profit margins have dwindled.

There has been a steady drumbeat of announcements of layoffs and buyouts and hiring freezes. But at the same time the papers are saying goodbye to the departing staffers, they are frantically beefing up their Web operations in an effort to adapt to the new realities of the media world (see "Transforming the Architecture," October/November). And they're assigning some of the survivors to cover hyperlocal news. More tasks, fewer people.

Inevitably, the publisher accompanies news of the bloodletting with the solemn declaration that the cutbacks in no way suggest that the paper is backing off from its commitment to world-class public service journalism.

There's not really a problem, you see. The paper is going to do more with less.

This nonsense is repeated so often that it's amazing anyone can still say it with a straight face. Certainly no one believes it.

The staffers know what's going on. They know what's lost, whether it's subject beats that are abandoned, cities and towns and neighborhoods that are ignored or enterprise pieces and investigative reports that never surface because there isn't enough reporting firepower to make them happen.

And don't think the readers don't know when they're getting a product that's thinner both in terms of newshole and heft. All the spin in the world can't hide that.

The "do more with less" silliness is bad enough when it comes from other industries. But it's particularly appalling when it comes from people who are in the truth-telling business.

Maybe it's time to launch a special Pulitzer Prize for candor. And the first award should go to Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. When Smith warned his staff earlier this year that (inevitably) cuts were coming, he opted for straight talk instead of mumbo jumbo. "A smaller staff means a lesser paper," he wrote. "Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you won't hear it from me. There is no way to make this pig look like anything other than a pig."

Now don't get me wrong. The news business is in a transformative phase, so there's plenty of reason for rethinking and revamping and restructuring. As John Morton rightly points out (see The Newspaper Business, October/November), it's not that newspapers are exactly charity cases. The average profit margin of publicly traded newspaper companies was 16 percent in the first half of 2007, a number that would be Nirvana (if not Pearl Jam) for many industries. But it's a number that's steadily falling. And with the continuing decline of print circulation, the accelerated drop in print advertising and the powerful allure of the Internet, standing pat is hardly an attractive option.

So, sure, make some moves to try to survive and thrive. But spare me the more-with-less doubletalk. Lying to your minions and your customers doesn't seem like a particularly wise strategy.

And it's probably smart to avoid putting a Pollyanna spin on the notion of the Web as savior, particularly in the short term. As Paul Farhi makes clear in a penetrating and sobering look at all of this (see "Online Salvation?"), it will be quite some time before newspapers' online revenue grows to the point that it offsets lost print income. Look for a long, hard slog.

Most alarming, it looks like the rapid rate of online advertising growth at newspapers is slowing down. Let's hope those scary third quarter numbers at some major newspaper companies are merely a blip.

While we're banning expressions, how about adding "it is what it is" to the dustbin? Is it just me or is this suddenly ubiquitous catchphrase truly annoying? First of all, what does it even mean? Are there lots of people out there who think it is what it's not? Second, it carries the connotation that we're stuck with the status quo, no matter how melancholy, and nothing can be done about it.

And that's absolutely the opposite attitude from the one journalists need as we plot the exciting if somewhat daunting future.