Extreme Makeover, Freeploid Edition

Gannett is taking the inevitable next step in its pursuit of profit: spinning off its newspaper business, formerly the heart and soul (such as it was) of the corporation. The publishing arm will start with a clean slate, unlike some other spinoffs that loaded corporate debt onto the new entity; but it also strips away whatever fiscal protection was offered by Gannett’s moneymaking broadcast properties.

For readers of the Burlington Free Press wondering what its future will look like, I suggest media coverage of its sister paper, the Tennesseean. The Nashville daily is being transformed into a “beta” newsroom, a new-world model for affiliated papers to follow. The topline looks good: The Tennesseean promises a larger reporting staff and more local journalism.

But the attic is full of spiders, and if I were a senior Freeploid employee, I’d be preparing to be “future endeavored” into a lousy job market. The best summary, with plenty of links, comes from the Poynter Institute. And it includes such gems as:

— The newsroom will, indeed, have more reporters — but fewer others, including far fewer editors. The total staff will shrink from the current 89 to 76. That’s a 15% cut.

Every newsroom staffer will have to reapply for new jobs and no one is guaranteed a new gig. Out goes seniority! I bet those redefined jobs will offer lower pay and lousier bennies. Also, senior staff had better be as up-to-date with the digital world as your average twenty-something J-school grad, or they’ll be out on their ears. With, according to Nashville Public Radio, “a small severance package.” Lovely.

— The lack of editors will put the onus on reporters to produce “publication-ready copy” because there won’t be enough editors to give stories a second look. Expect a lot more typos, bad grammar, and stories rushed to publication.

Every reporter I know has seen stories ripped to shreds by unskilled, or agenda-driven editors. But there’s a reason that traditional journalism demands mediation between writing and publication: it’s the quality control. It is, literally, the most significant difference between traditional media and the likes of Yours Truly. I write what I know and feel, based on experience, and I can post anything I want to. The editorial system breeds a certain level of professionalism, which is why the Freeploid can expect to be paid for its content and I cannot. (I’d like to be, hint hint, but I can’t expect it.)

“Audience analytics” will rule the roost. Executive Editor Stefanie Murray, the Tennesseean’s own Jim Fogler, says “We’re going to use research as the guide to make decisions and not the journalist’s gut.” Wonderful; we’ll be setting our journalistic priorities based on pageviews and reader surveys. Er, I mean “audience surveys,” because “reader” is so 20th Century.

I realize that newspapers face a difficult future. Their old sources of advertising are drying up, and digital ads don’t fill the gap. Unless you’ve got something else going for you, like donor support (VPR, VtDigger) or a healthy, ad-rich print operation (Seven Days), you’re dependent on ad revenue. (The traditional paper got at least two-thirds of its revenue from ads, not readers.) The Tennesseean is one more experiment in creating a sustainable future. But the minions of Gannett are furiously lipsticking this pig — presenting the “new” Tennesseean as a model of intensive, community-oriented journalism. It’s not. It’s another effort at slashing costs to maintain profit margins.

The Freeploid has a whole lot of experienced senior staffers who work very hard. Their experience can lend context and depth to their reporting. If the Tennesseean’s “beta” test goes well, in terms of profitability, expect the winds of change to blow strong through the Freeps’ offices in the near future.

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