AJR  Columns
From AJR,   December/January 2009

Investing in the Future   

News outlets that enhance their Web operations in tough times will reap benefits.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

In the course of researching this column I Googled the grim phrase "cut web staff." Intending to search Google News, which queries recent news articles, I accidentally searched plain old Google.

The first item to come up in the search results was a PBS.org story titled, "NY Times to Cut Web Staff." After a moment of confusion, I realized that it was dated January 8, 2001. On that day, the New York Times Co. cut 17 percent of the 400 online employees working for its newspaper sites.

It's all coming back to me now. In the shadow of more recent media turmoil, the online news layoffs of 20002002 have almost faded from memory. But they happened. Other ancient headlines excavated by Google announce major Internet staff cuts at CNBC and now-defunct Knight Ridder, and after a couple of clicks I'm staring at a list of large cuts at Tribune Co., CBS, NBC, CNN and many more in 2001 alone.

In fact, all of the relevant articles produced by my "cut web staff" search seem to be dated 2001 or 2008. That begs for comparison.

One difference is that Web staff reductions at news organizations are rarely major anymore. In the process of broader cuts, newsrooms will shed an online manager here, or a blogger there but nothing like the purge of seven years ago. Today, the big Web staff cuts are happening at pure-play Internet sites like Zillow.com, the popular real estate pricing site that recently cut 27 percent of its staff. Or eBay, which in October cut 10 percent of its global workforce as its online auction business weakened.

Another obvious difference is that now the entire economy is stumbling.

It's also a fact that there's not much fat to cut when it comes to online news staffs. In the late '90s, some news organizations probably did overstaff their Web departments. In many cases, resources devoted to 24/7 online coverage might not have been commensurate with audience size and certainly were not commensurate with revenue.

Today's news consumers are addicted to the Web, and yet some local newsrooms have fewer Web-focused employees than they did in 1999. It's encouraging that print and broadcast staff are being trained to update their Web sites, which is one explanation for not adding Web editors but specialists are still needed. (To be fair, many news organizations have added Web positions over time.)

Because online news staffs are already lean (sometimes just a couple of people) and also because new platforms are supposed to be traditional media's bridge to the future, Web employees seem to have been protected, mostly, from the recent drastic cuts at newspapers and broadcast stations. Will that remain true in the trying times to come?

It's almost inconceivable that any newsroom would kill its Web site; readers and viewers wouldn't stand for it. But without significant online revenue, some will likely decide to prioritize their traditional products above new media. That could translate to Web staff reductions, or simply a freeze in spending for online development. When a manager must choose to either eliminate a newsroom position or cancel a Web project even a potentially profitable Web project the urge to support the core business will be powerful. That is a call where reasonable people can disagree.

Even when Web resources aren't cut directly, broader newsroom layoffs can have an effect on digital talent. When newer, younger employees are the first out the door, the company loses the infusion of digital fluency and creativity they bring with them. There certainly is no age limit on the ability to embrace new platforms, and the protection of senior staff is understandable and often justified. But these young people grew up with instant messaging and on-demand TV; their grasp of this stuff is more innate than ours, and they understand the next generation of news consumers better than we ever will.

Following an October layoff announcement at Spokane's Spokesman-Review a newspaper known for its aggressive and innovative approach to the Web multimedia editor Colin Mulvany lamented the loss of several recently trained video journalists. In his personal blog, Mulvany described teaching the young reporters to shoot and edit video, only to see them laid off shortly before their video storytelling initiative was to launch. These were part of a broader round of layoffs at the paper, and any of us might have made the same business decision; it just shows that new media is suffering along with old.

Now that we've considered numerous scenarios of doom, let's consider a much rosier outcome. For bold strategists, the next few years could be a window of opportunity. Rewards could come to news companies that find a way to invest in true transformation while their competitors are hunkering down around the core. It'll feel precarious and counterintuitive like investing in stocks when the market is down but those companies will be in the best possible position when the economy finds its feet again.