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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

Cutbacks with a Dash of Nonsense   

The Salt Lake Tribune is the latest news outlet to proclaim that staff reductions won't have any impact on the quality of the product. Weds., May 9, 2012.

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

Add Tim Fitzpatrick, deputy editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, to the "doing more with less" Hall of Shame.

The Tribune announced today that it is laying off nine newsroom employees, 7.5 percent of the newsroom staff. The casualties include five members of the copy desk.

But Utahns need not worry about the impact on the quality of the Tribune's news offerings. According to an article in the paper disclosing the layoffs: "The changes will not undercut The Tribune's output of news and enterprise journalism that readers expect, Fitzpatrick said. 'We think that we can maintain the quality' of the paper."

It's a ritual. Every time a news organization announces staff reductions, its leadership assures readers that there will be no falloff in quality. They'll just do more with less.

Last February, the culprit was Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli. Announcing another round of cuts at the Post, Brauchli added a positive spin: "The Post's Newsroom remains formidable, and we will continue making tactical hires so that even as we get smaller, we get stronger."


No one begrudges struggling news outlets the right to cut costs. With advertising and circulation declining sharply at newspapers in the digital age, something's got to give. But it doesn't have to be accompanied by feel-good nonsense.

Besides, when you start slashing copy editors, it shows. The typos and usage fiascos and mistakes proliferate. It happens every time.

"Copy-editing and page-design functions, along with some copy editors and designers, will be integrated with existing news-gathering and content-producing teams to create five independent news hubs," the paper said, attributing the information to Editor Nancy Conway.

That's a popular trend these days, although not necessarily a healthy one. Fewer sets of eyes particular the eyes that are the last line of defense mean more errors, often the kind that jump off the page for readers. That doesn't do much to reinforce brand loyalty.

Back in 2008, I called on the Pulitzer Prize Board to launch a new award for candor. I wanted them to give it to Steven A. Smith, then the editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. When Smith told his staff that cuts were in the offing, he spared them the "more with less" nonsense. "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."

I'd still like the Pulitzer people to create that category and give the first prize retroactively to Smith, now teaching at the University of Idaho's School of Journalism and Mass Media.

But more than that, just one time, I'd love to see a news executive announcing bad news stick to the truth. After all, isn't that what journalists are supposed to tell?