Walter Pierce

Fourth Estate Planning

by Walter Pierce

It’s grim and getting grimmer for traditional news media  This is my second column on the travails of news media which, based on the number of columns I’ve written in these pages, constitutes harping. But lest we overlook the applicability of harping at this juncture, let us recall that harps are played at funerals and in heaven. Over the din of bloggers, wiki-journalists and an ever-growing army of “citizen reporters,” the death knell peals for this threadbare herringbone; it’s going out of fashion faster than parachute pants.

Just last week, Gannett, the company that owns The Daily Advertiser and four other Louisiana dailies, announced more layoffs: 1,400 company-wide among 41,500 workers nationwide. The company shrank its workforce by 10 percent last year, including dozens of layoffs at The Advertiser. In a memo to employees presaging the layoffs, Advertiser publisher Leslie Hurst urged employees to “continue to give 100%.” A friend who works for the company tells me a mantra keeps her going: “I’m here for the health insurance.” Another likened the environment to working on death row: “Will I be the next pink slip, or the colleague beside me?”

When use of the Internet became common in newsrooms in the late 1990s, many journalists thought, “What a research tool! This will make my job easier.” Few were saying what is becoming painfully obvious: “This will throw our collective asterisk onto the unemployment line.” But it is coming to pass, and at an increasingly alarming rate, particularly among once robust, high-circulation papers: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Christian Science Monitor, The Rocky Mountain News. What’s really killing the daily is the loss of classified advertising, half of some newspapers’ revenue. The Internet simply does it better, cheaper, and reaches a wider audience.

So papers look for enterprising ways of generating revenue and stopping the bleeding. Sadly, Gannett’s strategy has largely been to trim its workforce and scale back on content, and to let financially successful papers like The Advertiser bear more than its commensurate share of pain for the good of the company. The venerable Washington Post, on the other hand, was caught last week with its hand in an ethically questionable cookie jar. After news circulated that The Post planned to host get-togethers and sell lobbyists face time with its elite sources — White House officials, elected lawmakers, as well as its own journalists and editorial staff — for up to $250,000 a pop, the paper shame-facedly canceled the “salons.”

Our local television news stations, too, are not beyond the reach of adversity, although their ills are more acutely tied to the economy than to the shifting sands of media. Fox News Louisiana abandoned its roughly two-year experiment with a 30-minute newscast this spring. The parent company of KATC TV-3 instituted furloughs as a means of controlling costs. And now comes word that Young Broadcasting, the owner of Lafayette-based CBS affiliate KLFY, is going up for auction next week. It’s too early to tell what effect that will have on TV-10, but anyone who has worked in a large operation knows that new ownership typically likes to bring in its own people, at least on the management side.

News reporting and traditional journalism will not go away; we still want to know what’s going on. But the landscape is changing quickly, and few if any newspapers and broadcasters have figured out how to make their Web sites profitable. As for the old-fashioned daily newspaper: How can it not go the way of the telegraph? Even if all newsprint is one day recycled, it is the most wasteful, the most personnel-intensive, cumbersome means of delivering information to a consumer base that dwindles by the gigabyte. It surpasses stone tablets, let’s give it that.