Results weak, GCI revamping Information Centers

Nearly two years after launching a radical change in how its newsrooms distribute information, new top Gannett executives are revamping the concept amid weak Web traffic growth, an alarming decline in revenues, and a plunging stock price.

The Information Center concept emphasized digital delivery over print, and was a cornerstone of CEO Craig Dubow‘s turnaround plan for the 84 U.S. community newspapers. But based on GCI’s recent financial results, the closely watched experiment is failing its main mission: shoring up Web traffic and online ad sales.

Gannett has disclosed little about the scale or timetable for any changes to the model, which is still being applied to the 23-station TV division and the 17 daily papers in the U.K. Yet, details have started emerging in newsletters to employees, regulatory filings, internal documents, and in recent Gannett Blog comments. “Info Center 2.0,” as one reader calls it, targets younger baby boomer demographics — “which if you haven’t been clued into yet, you will soon.”

Listening to ‘fatbottoms drone’
Another reader wrote about an Information Center meeting Tuesday attended by the “high muckety-mucks” (though not Chief Digital Officer Chris Saridakis). “We’re listening to the fatbottoms drone on endlessly,” the reader wrote, apparently while still in the meeting. “Good thing we wasted a good portion of the day looking at screenshots we’ve seen eight times before, though. Very informative!”

Trying to tamp down such unrest, the company told employees late last month that any newsroom organizational changes wouldn’t be dramatic. “These steps are more evolutionary than revolutionary,” News Department chief Phil Currie (left) said in the June 26 edition of News Watch newsletter.

Currie’s department played a big role in developing the Information Center idea, which directly affected about 5,000 newsroom employees — or 11% of the workforce. But as one of its chief ambassadors, Currie is a font of disinformation — since he long ago jettisoned journalism in favor of Marketing Speak. (See Pop Quiz, bottom of post.) For example, word for word from his News Watch piece, here’s how Currie described the “next key steps” in whatever gets done with the newsrooms:

  • Identifying and understanding vital audiences at locations across the company and delivering effective content to satisfy readers, digital users and advertisers.
  • Engaging our audiences in ways that better connect our digital and print products with them — and the audiences with us.
  • Providing our audiences with more and better multi-platform public service journalism that will help distinguish our work from that of other media. Our audiences want effective watchdog work particularly in this time of turmoil at all levels of government and life. We will deliver it.

Huh? The first two are total gobbledygook. The third apparently refers to the internal findings of the Newspaper Division Print Task Force, which emphasized more hard news and watchdog journalism for the print newspapers, and their core baby boomer audience.

New management, weak financials
The Information Center strategy, and that task force report, were hatched under now-retired newspaper division president Sue Clark-Johnson. Her successor, Bob Dickey, is already putting his own stamp on the division, dramatically reshaping top leadership, and inevitably raising questions about the Information Center’s future.

Dickey, 50 (left), has no time to waste, given Gannett’s deteriorating position. Second-quarter net income plunged 36% from a year ago, to $233 million, on an unexpectedly bigger drop in ad revenues. That was a far worse performance than the second quarter of 2006, just before the Information Center was introduced. Net income that quarter fell just 8.3% from the year before, to $310.5 million.

What’s more, Web traffic growth has been anemic, and penetration has been flat, GCI’s monthly statistical summaries show. Last month, Gannett recorded a combined 23,076,000 unique visitors on its U.S. websites, including USA Today‘s. That was 14.1% of the Internet audience. In June 2006, just before the Information Center was rolled out, GCI had 22,238,000 such visitors — 14.2% of all.

Meanwhile, online ad revenue growth rates at the domestic community dailies are apparently now so dismal, Gannett no longer publishes them. No wonder investors are losing patience: The company’s stock is now trading around $18 a share — down more than 60% from the second quarter of 2006.

Earlier: At Gannett headquarters, the band plays on

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

Pop Quiz: Phil Currie or oil industry flack?
Someone wrote the following: “In troubling times in our industry, we are not about to retreat. We continue to march forward, counting on getting closer to the people who count on us. And we are saying, ‘Yes, [                ] does matter, and it remains a must.”

(No-duh answer, here.)

[Image: this morning’s Florida Today, Newseum; Today was one of the original 11 test sites for the Information Center]

14 Responses to “Results weak, GCI revamping Information Centers”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I’d gladly provide a stipend, Jim, if you’d never write SCJ’s name again.

    Seriously. How much?

    Also, can you price me a deal that would include a ban on both SCJ and Phil Currie? Those people, those two people, are responsible for 75% of my problems with Gannett.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    This just in from the WTF Dept.:

    How does Currie, or anyone, for that matter, in corporate, in the newsrooms and out on the streets expect any level of hard news and watchdog journalism when most of the reporters are too busy working on rewrites of “local, local” township press releases announcing free hot dog night at the free juggling expo under the stars in the park or the 44 pound cat wandering around Camden County, NJ?.

    Puh-fucking-leeze. We all know watchdog journalism doesn’t sell. GCI has hammered that point home time and again by slicing and dicing budgets and eliminating jobs. Remember when enterprise was important? Haven’t seen an enterprise budget in quite a while.

    Rather than offering up some bullshit bulleted release, Currie should do us all a favor and detail exactly how newsroom managers can achieve this goal.

    Gotta go, new pool just opened in one of our geosites that overlaps a tmc that almost borders our core area.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle. That’s the sound of the S.S. Gannett going to its rightful home.

    The move that sealed the deal was when Gannett got rid of experienced reporters who were good at covering hard news, then replaced them with cheap kids who would rather be friends with PR reps than take on a real watchdog role or cover hard news. Such a pathetic company.

    Those uninspiring, insipid blogs and all the poorly-constructed videos aren’t going to save you now, jerks.

    Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I was called into a meeting by editors at a Gannett biggie in 2005. They directed me to back off tackling more complicated and time consuming stories and look instead for “low-hanging fruit” because my story count was down. I was the one who was writing the watchdog and public service stories. If it takes more than a day or two and it is not a contest entry, you are SOL.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    —–Trying to tamp down such unrest, the company told employees late last month that any newsroom organizational changes wouldn’t be dramatic. “These steps are more evolutionary than revolutionary,” News Department chief Phil Currie (left) said in the June 26 edition of News Watch newsletter.—–

    Frankly, it should be none of corporate’s business how newsrooms, er, information centers organize themselves. A newspaper in any city is unique because its community is unique — newsroom organization should match the local needs. We are not a burger chain. Until corporate provides local autonomy (this will happen roughly at the same time as pigs fly), its newspapers will continue to decline. Of course, local autonomy would mean that the corner offices would have to be cleaned out at most papers because the leaders wouldn’t know what to do if they had to make most important decisions themselves. But one can dream.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Anon 1:31 — WELL SAID!

    Guess the wind has again switched direction in McClean. Gads. How in the world can any company move forward when its primary mission continues to change. I am sure this will go a long ways toward shoring up the growing fractures between the Web geeks and print guys.

    Are the folks at the top really this stupid? Sorry. Strike that. Rhetorical.

    Or maybe this new direction now gives them an excuse to start laying off Web workers, now that the print staffs have been gutted.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Editors now wet their pants and panties if they get a couple of hundred people look at a video or go to a specialty site they developed. Back in the day, several hundred looking at a story in the paper would be considered a major disappointment!!!!

    Gannett has had this cookie cutter approach to news theory — if it works in one place it will work everywhere.


    Each town is unique and its readers’ needs and demands are unique as well. But Gannett wants to fit their round news theory peg into everyones’ square hole.


    But keep celebrating those small numbers because soon they will equal your circulation numbers.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    At the APP, the information center concept was compared to “the bridge on the starship Enterprise,” where all the high-level editors would sit, posting items on web site and rolling up their sleeves on breaking stories.

    Well, that lasted all of maybe 3 weeks, and the Enterprise was left to a couple of overworked mid-level editors (Uhuru? Ensign Chekhov?) trying to do 8 things at once while everyone else retreated to their glass offices.

    Yep, to boldly go where no newspaper has gone before…

  9. Anonymous Says:

    What does it mean when an information center is asked to provide a current organizational chart with duties of employees to corporate ?

    Is this going on all over the company or just my paper ?

  10. Anonymous Says:

    8:06 … That happened at our paper shortly before buyouts were offered months ago.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    hey, 8:06, where r u? (u 2, 10:36)

  12. Anonymous Says:

    10:45 …. 10:36 here – Cherry Hill

  13. Anonymous Says:

    We’ve been having to update org charts every quarter for the last year.

    Probably have to do it again after this month. Yeaa.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Jim, to clear this up…

    The baby boomers, which for Gannett’s purposes are split into an older and younger demographic, are only one of four target audiences under the revamped info center idea. Those corporate conference calls, as shoot-me-now boring as they were, really didn’t outline a whole new anything.

    Essentially it comes down to this: Figure out your core audience, engage that audience and renew commitment to first amendment/public service journalism. Also, the four audiences that now matter are baby boomers, women 25-39, young professionals and upscale residents. (Yes, there is some overlap.)

    The idea is newspapers need to find their “competitive advantage” in the local market and really own it (and sell it to advertisers).

    Also, for those who can access it, there’s already an intranet site dedicated to explaining these things.

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