Covering the news media

Writing about the news media was one of my beats when I worked for a business newspaper in Tampa. It was fun and an interesting coverage area, but even in the mid-1990s the print business was in decline. That made for some uncomfortable stories, and also for some uncomfortable news business executives. They didn’t like it when reporters would write negative stories about them. I could always count on a ringing telephone the day after writing a story about a newspaper that was less than glowing. This story was about the Tampa TRIBUNE, a newspaper that has been in second place to the St. Petersburg TIMES (now the Tampa Bay TIMES) over on the other side of Tampa Bay. The Tribune is still hanging on, but its future is cloudy.

Arthur Frederick
Staff Writer

A team of Pennsylvania-based consultants has been hired to study the nooks and crannies of the Tampa Tribune, and is searching out ways to cut costs and boost efficiency.

Publisher Jack Butcher said the move was simply a matter of the newspaper business trying to catch up with other industries.

“The word that comes to mind is `archaic.’ Every other industry did this eight or 10 years ago,” Butcher said. “We are trying to make our company more productive and more customer-friendly — what just about any company in America has to do to survive.”

But to some Tribune news staffers, the study is little more than a cover for the further elimination of jobs which has been rumored at the paper for some time.

Tribune managers won’t discount the possibility of layoffs. But they say the study is really aimed at finding more efficient processes which will improve news reporting, and make the paper stronger and more competitive.

“This is an ongoing process that probably will take at least six or seven more months,” said Michael Kilgore, the Tribune’s promotion director and chief spokesman. “We aren’t looking at money to be saved or people to be employed. We’re looking at processes. We’ve told our employees that in some departments we might need fewer people, and in others we might need more.”

It seems likely, however, that employment at the Tribune will decline in the coming months, a trend that is already in place.

Kilgore said total Tribune employment as of Aug. 31 was 2,062, down 165 from the 2,227 people who were Tribune employees on the same date last year.

Kilgore declined to say how many of those 165 workers came from the circulation, production, advertising or news departments, or whether any of them had been laid off.

Tim Goodwin, one of the consultants assigned to the Tribune by Pittsburgh-based JLA Consulting, wouldn’t speculate about numbers, but he indicated the size of the newspaper could be expected to shrink at the end of his company’s review.

“Do I think the number of people working today will be the same as the number working tomorrow? I would guess there would probably be a few less,” he said. “I don’t know what that number will be.

“Like a lot of businesses, I think the Tribune ramped up to meet some capacity, and now it has to look at what the market will support. I didn’t come in with the idea that a certain number of people will be cut. But I can’t discount the possibility that there will be fewer jobs here.”

Reaction to JLA Consulting’s presence has been mixed among Tribune employees, especially among members of the news staff.

Some feel the Tribune is in serious need of a procedural tune-up; others worry that JLA Consulting, which has never reviewed a newspaper before, will try to apply efficiency standards which will create chaos in the newsgathering operation.

“No one really knows what JLA understands about the news business,” said Noam Neusner, a former business section writer and one of several writers who left the Tribune recently. “The more (staffers) learn (about it), the less confidence they have in the process.”

One thing that makes Tribune employees nervous is the experience of workers at a sister paper, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal.

A year ago, the Journal dismissed 34 production department employees several months after hiring DeWolff Boberg and Associates of Charleston, S.C., a consulting firm with no previous newspaper experience. A few months later, the paper laid off 10 news staffers.

The Tribune and the Journal, along with the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, are owned by Richmond-based Media General Inc., which also owns WFLA, Channel 8, in Tampa.

Critics said that even worse than the layoffs was the “grid system” that DeWolff dreamed up for the Journal newsroom. After keeping careful track of the way reporters and editors spent their time, the consultants came up with a system that assigned blocks of time to certain types of stories, much as a garage’s flat-rate book assigns amounts of times to various auto repairs.

A particular category of story, for example, should use a press release and two “cooperative sources,” and should take 0.9 hours to complete, according to the grid.

Newspeople hated the system, and it was scrapped three months after it was instituted.

John Witherspoon, the Journal’s publisher, said the grid system was meant as a way of reviewing reporters’ productivity, not as a guide for their day-to-day functions.

“Nobody was ever told they had to do 80 `Class A’ stories a week, that was never part of the grid,” Witherspoon said. “But reporters felt very stressed by it, and we became convinced that their editors were doing a better job of tracking what reporters were doing and had a better grip on their productivity, so with that in mind we decided we could get out of the grid business.”

The consultants’ lack of newspaper experience doesn’t bother the Tribune’s Kilgore because, he said, it is the paper — and not the consultants — who will decide what changes will be put into effect

“I think the thing to keep in mind is they are consultants only,” Kilgore said. “They are not coming in and imposing rules and regulations. Nothing is going to change until senior management approves and then implements it. If there are recommendations that don’t make sense, we don’t have to do them.”

Some Tribune staffers indicated uncertainty about the whole review process when it was first announced to the staff in a memo from Butcher.

The memo reportedly said the Tribune hoped to improve its “value-added” activities, a term that didn’t sit well with news staffers who are notoriously blase — and even hostile — toward the financial side of the newspaper business.

“That was a laugh,” said Neusner, “because journalists are not attuned to profit-making.”

But Kilgore said it may be time for people in the newsroom to become more aware of the financial side of the daily newspaper business, which has been battling shrinking circulation and ad revenues as readers find other sources of news and information.

Having some appreciation for the dollar side of the business, he said, would help editorial employees understand why management makes some of the decisions it does.

“(The editorial department) may want to go up one or two pages for some special coverage, but they really need to know how much it costs to do that,” Kilgore said. “Frequently at many newspapers, those decisions are made in a vacuum. It sounds good to get bigger, but we should be making those decisions intelligently.”

And there is another reason for newspeople to pay attention to the financials — the employee retirement plan owns a sizeable block of Media General stock.

Meanwhile, one thing the consultants will probably not be examining is morale, a commodity that reportedly is sometimes in short supply at the Trib. Spirits are said to be low among some of the workers in the Trib’s newsrooms, and the arrival of JLA Consulting did little to improve the mood.

“I worked in several Tribune bureaus, and most of the time the morale was low,” said one former staffer who did not want to be identified. “I knew plenty of people who were unhappy — good people.”

But both Kilgore and former writer Neusner agree that newspeople are professional skeptics, and that skeptics are not, by nature, a happy lot.

“Journalists … have both the high aspirations of idealogues and the extremely critical nature of cynics,” said Neusner. “They are easily disappointed, which is not to say that the Tribune has not been disappointing.”

Tribune executives won’t say how much they are paying JLA Consulting, but newspaper consultants can be expensive. The Winston-Salem Journal reportedly paid DeWolff Boberg & Associates between $800,000 and $1 million for its services.

Former staffer Neusner offered a formula for improvement that the Tribune could put in place for free.

“Pay market rates for labor, give reporters and editors the tools they need to succeed, hire from the outside and hire the best, and stop aping the St. Petersburg Times,” he said.

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