Tuesday, August 12, 2008

[Publisher’s Note] Dear Larry: Jackson, Mississippi More Than a ‘Market’

" ... I postulate that if The Clarion-Ledger spent more time and money on enterprise reporting and community journalism—and less time on tabloid reformats, glossy picture publications and using reporters to become the fourth (or fifth) video newscast in town—that they wouldn’t be in the position they are now. ... "


by Todd Stauffer
August 8, 2008

The Clarion-Ledger’s current publisher Larry Whitaker announced in a staff memo last week that Mississippi’s state-wide Gannett property will lay off 20 employees on top of the hiring freeze it has in effect, in order to maintain current levels of profitability. The memo, leaked to industry blogger Romenesko at the Poynter Institute, eventually made its way to Editor & Publisher magazine, as the news is likely a harbinger for layoffs elsewhere in the Gannett chain.

He blamed a faltering national economy for the cutbacks that advertisers are instituting with The Clarion-Ledger, pointing out that national ups-and-downs have previously had less of an effect on “the Jackson market.”

“Some experts are calling this year the worst the newspaper industry has ever seen. Up to now, the Jackson market has been good to us. Its overall health has enabled us to operate with virtually the same level of staffing while other newspapers have gone through the job elimination process multiple times. We can no longer shield ourselves from the economic reality of the times,” he wrote.

No doubt, the newspaper world is going through a disruption at exactly the same time that the U.S. is experiencing stagnant wages, inflationary prices and something akin to a crisis when it comes to energy costs. Yes, gas prices are near an all-time high, as are the costs of electricity and heating, oil, food and other staples. And I can attest to one thing Whittaker says—paper prices are up precipitously.

It’s worth noting that Gannett’s corporate structure forces something on the “paper of record” in Jackson that might not be a natural fit for a local daily newspaper—a 25 percent profit margin. Not that I’m against profits—far from it. I love them.

But the fact that The Clarion-Ledger is a daily newspaper owned by a public corporation means that it serves two masters—the citizens’ right to know and shareholder value.

Guess which one tends to get the short end of the stick?

I’ll give you a hint. Whittaker, in his memo to the employees of The Clarion-Ledger (which, as you may have heard, has its HQ in Jackson), refers to the paper as “the Jackson market” and says that it “has been good to us.” If Mr. Whittaker thinks of Jackson primarily as a “market,” then there’s evidence that he’s a bit too focused on the “shareholder” constituency than the “citizen” one.

The power of the press is so manifest—and its responsibilities so paramount to democracy—that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically enumerates a near-absolute right for the free press (and, by extension, individual speech). This is bigger than corporate structure, public or private. And as newspapers have trended more and more toward de-facto local monopolies, the way they act as corporate citizens deserves more scrutiny than many—perhaps most—other corporations, public or private.

Mr. Whittaker needs to take to heart that his “customers” are not just advertisers—the citizens are kind of important, too. And his paper isn’t doing enough for citizens.

I postulate that if The Clarion-Ledger spent more time and money on enterprise reporting and community journalism—and less time on tabloid reformats, glossy picture publications and using reporters to become the fourth (or fifth) video newscast in town—that they wouldn’t be in the position they are now. I don’t know if they focus-group themselves or not, but, anecdotally, I’d say the C-L is so widely disliked that it will be difficult to turn that particular ocean liner away from the iceberg under the current corporate ownership.

Indeed, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of an interesting experiment—could American daily newspapers be run like television or radio stations in group ownership to the same profitability and success? Gannett has given it a go—sacrificing the top tiers of its journalistic prowess in the process—and it rode high for a while. But, ultimately, the model may be broken.

One day it may be clear that newspaper companies need to be locally owned and/or privately held—or even non-profit. And my bets are on the importance of “being a good citizen” as a newspaper, which means staying relevant and engaged in your community—whether your final product is print, Web, mobile or a mix of technologies. Quite frankly, being a good local, corporate citizen is tougher for a newspaper to do when you’ve got Wall Street to worry about every time you make a decision to dig deeper on a story or take on City Hall.

But, hopefully the C-L is learning some lessons. Here’s one—give up on the TDN scheme. This week, Mississippi Independent Publishers’ Alliance is pleased to announce a new agreement with all SprintMart stores in the Jackson metro. We’ll be placing new boxes this week for distribution of all of our member publications. Unlike TDN, we demand no exclusivity on the part of our retail partners—they’re free to control their own storefronts just as they did before TDN ever blew into town as a Gannett “best practice” to try to control distribution of competitive publications.

Added to the Mac’s Gas locations, which MIPA re-acquired earlier this summer, that’s more than 40 new outdoor locations where you can find high-quality, locally owned and managed publications in the Jackson metro (plus Canton, Florence, Edwards and a few other outlying towns). Please let management at those places know that you enjoy picking up the JFP and other publications when you buy your gas, sodas and other sundries.

Finally, in the interest of bettering our own journalistic chops, the JFP has made another fine “acquisition” this week to our growing operation—assistant editor Maggie Burks goes full-time as the new managing editor of the Jackson Free Press. Congratulations—and sincere thanks—are in order for Maggie, who has worked her way quickly into this management role through hard work, dedication to the community she grew up in and an amazing on-the-job attitude.

We’re thrilled and blessed to have this second-generation journalist as a part of the team—and we look forward to great work from her both in breaking news and in deeper, more relevant (and useful) coverage in arts and entertainment.

Meanwhile, this just in ... The Clarion-Ledger has announced a new exclusive contract for Web chat-rooms that are to be populated by robo-journos—cybernetic word-processors that require no coffee or pension. Film at 11!


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