Archive for August, 2008

Labor Day Weekend: Blogging will be light

August 30, 2008

[Workers march through Chicago in a 1915 Labor Day parade]

I’m taking it easy most of this weekend, the traditional close of summer in the United States. Many of you are celebrating the holiday, too, so traffic here will be light. As always, though, I’ll stay on top of your e-mail and comments. Barring breaking news, I’ll see you in a bigger way on Tuesday.

[Photo: Library of Congress American Memory site. This photonegative was taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer, and published in the paper May 1, 1915]

Reader: Why a USA Today editor shares ideas here

August 29, 2008

“I simply don’t feel comfortable stating this in any other venue at this time for reasons I can’t reveal. It’s not like I haven’t tried.”

That was from a comment today by Anonymous@12:27 p.m., a reader who says they’re a USA Today editor. Although the subject is USAT, the writer’s frustration is shared by many employees across Gannett. Indeed, in a sign of that frustration, the reader wrote their comment on Gannett Blog, despite USA Today Publisher Craig Moon‘s reported admonition at Wednesday’s staff meeting that employees instead take concerns to supervisors. The comment (originally on this post) is quite long, but well worth reading:

‘A lot of smoke’
I concur that many USA TODAY editors are lacking in various ways as managers and visionaries. Too many are into simple labels and simple solutions. While some folks might be afraid of change, I am not one of them. And I am an editor! I am a manager who, perhaps surprisingly to some, tends to agree with a lot of what is said here.

Where I see smoke, I tend to think there is fire. And I see a lot of smoke on this blog. Granted, there are also some purely personal grudges and malicious comments here. I think most who read this blog are educated enough to understand the difference. I also think most are wise enough to respect varying opinions, though some seem overly defensive for whatever reason.

I have been accused of being an obstructionist, and it hurts because my bosses simply do not know my heart let alone my mind. To label someone unjustly, I’ve come to realize, is to lose that person in spirit, loyalty and productivity. Trust becomes fractured. Victims of stereotyping shut down. I try my best not to do that to the people who I supervise, although there are instances when it is clear that someone is exactly what they project. Sometimes they are incompetent, limited in their work ethics or skills. Sometimes they are complainers with no honorable motives. Some do abuse the system.

‘Critical mistake’ bosses make
I try to judge each person’s actions and comments on their own merit and don’t look to cubbyhole anyone based on limited interaction with them or vague perceptions told to me by others. However, I know that some of my fellow editors are incapable or unwilling to look beneath the surface of what staffers or other editors are trying to tell them.

These editors are under pressure to do certain things, meet difficult demands from the highest levels. The critical mistake they make is in abandoning comments and input made by folks on the front line. Those folks on the front line are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of decisions made at the top. They have a large stake in how things go, and a wealth of experience to provide insights that might prevent some major errors and damage that can’t be reversed.

Day in and day out the staffers and editors who are out front have to overcome the poor planning that was done by their bosses. I am a boss; I see it. It’s maddening and exhausting to continually be led down the wrong road, knowing as you go down it that you’re simply following orders to march off a cliff. But good soldiers do just that. And to do anything else is to be thought of as a renegade by some. That’s unfortunate for some individuals, and it’s ultimately bad for business.

The burnout level of lower and mid-managers in particular has always been high in all companies for reasons we all know. But when mid-managers and their staffs have little or no say in their futures or day-to-day tasks, it can be unbearable just coming to work. They are put into losing situations before the day even begins by short-sighted planning from the top, by a gross lack of resources and by longtime issues that have never been resolved.

These issues are fixable, but the will has to be there. I don’t always see that will in the USA TODAY newsroom. I see some lip service. I see some surrender and even denial. Once in awhile an honest attempt is made to fix something, but because this is a territorial newsroom, things aren’t always easily resolved.

All this frustration can lead to confrontation. I have witnessed an increase in newsroom conflicts in the last year. It’s a disturbing trend that I was just discussing with another editor and staffer on Wednesday. Much of it is subtle, but to someone in the middle of the storm each day, it is quite obvious.
Editors making broad-based decisions need to understand that the pressure they are feeling from above is not a valid excuse to make bad decisions. Those decisions feed into the anxieties of staffers when not processed well. While some departments are functioning reasonably well, some aren’t. Some are faced with far broader changes than others. Those changes must be handled correctly.

My main point
Managing editors, deputy managing editors and other top managers need to understand that just as it’s counterproductive for someone to be afraid of change or argue groundlessly against it, it is at least equally destructive to change JUST for the sake of change, so that an ME or DME can show the top editor that they did something. That “something” has to really be thought out. Critical decisions can’t just make superficial sense, but when examined more closely, have unlimited holes in it. That something often leads to major problems. I see this pattern repeated over and over. Some trial and error is understandable, but not every major change should be approached with the attitude of, “Well, if this doesn’t work we’ll try something else.” We’re not in a position anymore to experiment on a large scale. We have to be more reasonably sure things will work before they are enacted.

What works, what doesn’t
A lot of things work well at USA Today. If they didn’t, the paper would not have risen to No. 1. Many of those things that worked well for the paper could be adopted in the future. There are some proven principles and people that should not be abandoned just because they aren’t trendy. There are certain relationships and alliances that should be maintain and nurtured. Some workflows are highly efficient and help us do the impossible every single day. Details about everything from seating arrangements and schedules to flow charts and titles need to be put under the microscope because neglecting just one of those details could bring down a pretty good and broader plan. The big picture is important, but so are the little “quality of life” issues that can make work much more rewarding, or can turn a job into an impossible situation for one person or an entire team.

Yes, despite USA TODAY’s success, there are also many things that need to be fixed and changed dramatically. I am a huge proponent of change and of repairing things that don’t work. But, thus far, I see a lot of things being tinkered with that do work, and a lot of other things being introduced that have been proven failures in the recent past. I feel like some managers are forcing a nut onto a bolt, even at the risk of stripping the both. They appear to just want to say, “look the nut is on the bolt,” regardless of whether it’s on there properly and without damaging either.

There is a way to change but also preserve what is working and has always worked. There is a way to move forward but not abandon lessons learned from the past. If editors making key decisions can blend change/new ideas with respect for history, there will be greater efficiency, more buy-in and less concern about being wrongfully labelled.

Why I came to Gannett Blog
I truly hope this makes sense and that certain courses of action can be examined further as the industry evolves both at USA TODAY and other newsrooms.
I somewhat regret having to express my ideas (I had to avoid specifics, sorry) here rather than to my supervisors directly, but I simply don’t feel comfortable stating this in any other venue at this time for reasons I can’t reveal. It’s not like I haven’t tried.

I know some of the ideas I have outlined don’t relate to every department at USA TODAY, but I feel I have heard enough from around the building, and certainly have been adversely impacted by decisions from my team leaders to validate my opinions. I believe that most of my remarks here are a reflection of how the folks I supervise generally feel, though I don’t claim every observation is universally seen.

I am also asking Jim to post this as a separate item on the blog so that it will be more visible and that something good can come from it. Regardless, I hope everyone will take this in the spirit it is given. I don’t want to be confrontational or alarmist. But some things just need to be brought to light for the sake of USA TODAY and a number of people I respect and whose careers hang in the balance for various reasons.

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.

[Images: recent screenshots from USAT‘s website]

Tenn. pub’s retirement spurs consolidation chatter

August 29, 2008

Gene Washer‘s retirement today as publisher of The Leaf-Chronicle has readers here wondering whether Gannett may use his departure as an opportunity to do away with the top job at the daily in Clarksville, Tenn. Washer, 68, leaves after 45 years at the newspaper — 13 under GCI ownership. A replacement for Washer “will be named soon,” the paper says in a very (!) long story, quoting Ellen Leifeld, publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville, and vice president of Gannett’s South Newspaper Group, which includes the Clarksville daily.

But with GCI cutting costs by asking publishers to oversee multiple papers, Gannett Blog readers are speculating on this open-comments post about what’s next in Clarksville:

  • “If you have another Gannett paper near by, you might have a shared pub. A few papers are already putting a pub over more than one paper.”
  • “Nearest Clarksville is Nashville, where the publisher has her hands filled already. . . . The retiring Clarksville publisher is 68, three years beyond normal retirement age, and kept around to allow GCI to figure out what to do. I gather he got fed up waiting for a decision after three years. The big game plan, I once heard, involved folding both the Leaf-Chronicle and the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal into the Tennessean, despite the distances involved. Think that plan still alive, maybe part of the move towards creating statewide newspapers in Arizona, New Jersey and Tennessee. Stay tuned.”
  • “Putting middle Tennessee together a long-time GCI dream. Dickson, Gallatin, Henderson, Fairview and Ashland already under the Tennessean, so it would only be a small step to bring in Clarksville and Murfreesboro. The problem is that the Tennessean‘s presses are already contracted out to other publications, including Nashville Scene, City Paper, and the Nashville Business Journal. Cramming the other publications would be very difficult, but would save a huge amount of money. Since Gannett is looking for cost savings, I’ll bet they will go ahead with this plan and work out the difficulties afterwards.”

Gannett’s Tennessee papers

  • Leaf-Chronicle, Clarksville: 21,253 daily, 24,551 Sunday
  • The Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro: 14,635 daily, 18,159 Sunday
  • The Jackson Sun, Jackson: 31,596 daily, 36,915 Sunday
  • Tennessean, Nashville: 162,911 daily, 224,318 Sunday

[Image: a recent screenshot from the Leaf-Chronicle‘s homepage; circulation data, 2007 Annual Report to shareholders]

What I’m doing right now

August 28, 2008

8:31 p.m., Ibiza Time: Getting ready to have dinner with Sandra at our place.

Attn: Human resources chief Roxanne Horning

August 28, 2008
“I’m very frustrated by their stonewalling.”

Anonymous@12:35 p.m., commenting on HR’s inability to provide a status report on when a lump-sum pension payout will arrive. See today’s open post at Real Time Comments.

Readers: Six workers laid off at KPNX-TV in Phoenix

August 28, 2008

Gannett’s big NBC affiliate in the Arizona city laid off six workers yesterday — “with more probable,” according to one of two e-mails I’ve received. “There is speculation that after the digital transition in February, if not sooner, they will lay off the whole operations department, farming out operations to a hub.”

The second note says management has promised there are no more layoffs in the works, and that yesterday’s cuts are meant to shield the station against scary economic predictions for the next budget year. A decline in auto-related advertising was cited as primary reason.

Earlier: Layoffs hit the TV division, too; details, please!

Cutbacks at your station? Please post details 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.

Nervous glances: Corporate, Craig Moon — and me

August 28, 2008

[Glass palace: Gannett and USA Today headquarters]

Hardly anyone talked about Corporate at USA Today during the nearly eight years I worked for the company’s flagship — a big change from the three smaller newspapers where I was a reporter and editor in Little Rock, Boise and Louisville, Ky. At the community papers, Corporate — and that’s what people called it — hung over us like a big, ominous cloud. Top executives back at Arlington, Va., and then McLean, Va., after the company relocated in 2001, liked to say they always deferred to “local control.”

But that was complete and total bullshit. In newsrooms at the smaller papers, the editor or publisher would make sudden, odd requests that we do something. When we asked why, the short answer would be: “Corporate.” No more questions allowed.

Polished granite vs. threadbare carpet
It was entirely different at USA Today. The paper shared a luxurious building with Gannett — but that was it. USAT wasn’t subject to the onerous rules forced on the smaller papers: We rarely worried about diversity and mainstreaming, programs designed to feature more minorities in news stories. The quality control programs — News 2000, then Real Life, Real News — didn’t apply to us. There was much more money for business travel. And if you worked at the main office in McLean, you were cosseted in a gleaming glass office complex with granite floors, acres of stainless-steel details, a nice cafeteria, on-site gym facilities, a softball field and other amenities. The newsrooms where I worked employed nearly 500 often well-paid reporters, editors, artists and others.

Contrast that with the Idaho Statesman when I arrived in late 1991. The dirty, threadbare carpeting in the dimly-lit newsroom was literally held down with duct tape. Desks and chairs were old and battered. The closest thing we had to a cafeteria was the dreary, windowless “breakroom” with vending machines. Staffing was razor-thin: As the business-news editor, I had virtually no support from the understaffed copy desk: I edited and wrote stories; laid out the section, and oversaw page production in the back shop. I routinely put in 10- and 11-hour days, and worked most weekends. I got no overtime or comp time, of course, because I was in management.

Curley’s mysterious exit
USA Today started getting dragged into Corporate’s fold around 2003, when Publisher Tom Curley (left) — a likely successor to then-CEO Doug McCorkindale — bolted Gannett to become CEO of the Associated Press. (We were never told why, of course, but it appeared to follow a clash between the two executives.)

Craig Moon, publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville, replaced Curley. USAT staff began worrying that Moon would manage the newspaper more like one of Gannett’s 84 smaller titles: The budget would be reined in. Worker productivity demands would rise. In other words, USA Today would start carrying more of the load.

None of that surprised me. I had worked for Moon (left) once before, when he was publisher of The Arkansas Gazette for about two years, ending in early 1991, not long before Gannett shut down the paper amid a bruising newspaper war with a cross-town rival. By then, Moon had been promoted to Nashville, already on the road to Corporate.

I didn’t see Moon again for another 14 years years. By then, he’d been USAT publisher for about a year, and was making a surprise visit to the San Francisco bureau, where I worked as a business-news reporter. We had exchanged a few e-mails during the previous months about his impending choice for a new top editor, after Karen Jurgensen got bounced during the Jack Kelley scandal. I urged Moon to consider one editor in particular for the opening — someone other than the Tennessean‘s Mark Silverman; the rumor mill had placed Silverman on Moon’s short list. (Moon eventually hired Ken Paulson — but not before offering the job to someone else, I was told.)

Moon’s nervous look
On that day when Moon visited San Francisco, I don’t think he remembered that I worked in the office there. I buzzed him inside, then re-introduced himself. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed like an uncomfortable look crossed his face, as in: Uh-oh: A Little Rock survivor. I wonder what Hopkins remembers?

(Confidential to everyone: I remember everything. Maybe that explains some of the antics at yesterday’s USA Today staff meeting? Or, maybe he’s still pissed off about this.)

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.

[Images: headquarters, Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects; today’s USAT front page, Newseum]

Reminder: Add yourself to our laid-off worker list

August 27, 2008

I’m asking the 600 laid-off newspaper employees to post information about themselves — including job titles and ages — so we can see if there’s a pattern in who Gannett asked to leave the company. Don’t be forgotten: Add details about yourself on the post, here.

Earlier: Our paper-by-paper layoff list

Questions? Write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

USA Today staff meeting: What’s the news today?

August 27, 2008

Updated at 12:43 p.m ET. There apparently was no big news, I’ve now been told.

Earlier: Publisher Craig Moon (left) has scheduled an all-hands meeting for 11 a.m. today — but without revealing the agenda. Amid hundreds of recent layoffs at other newspapers, Moon’s opaqueness two weeks ago has stirred speculation that the ax will soon fall at the nation’s No. 1 circulation paper, too.

Since my metier is encouraging poisonous comments (inside joke, involving USAT‘s top editor), I’m convening the first-ever session of Gannett Blog University today. The class: live commenting on news events. Starting at 11 a.m., I’d like USA Today staff attending the meeting to report any news, in the comments section, below. (Note: I’ll have online access only by iPhone until about 3 p.m. ET, so will have only limited ability to update this post.)

Some of my readers say USAT employees — especially in editorial — get what they deserve today: “The USA Today newsroom is soft and spoiled, plain and simple. That’s why they don’t question authority. They want to maintain their gym memberships, play on their ball fields and tennis courts (part of the Gannett/USAT complex), go home by 5 or 6 every night. They enjoy their views of the Ritz-Carlton from their terrace and their lattes made fresh on Corporate grounds. Many of them have forgotten what it’s like to work at other Gannett papers. Some never did work in the smaller sweatshops so they have nothing to compare the glass palace with. Many USAT people still have it made compared to most folks at other Gannett properties. On some level, perhaps they know that, which is why they fall into line so easily.”

Please post details from today’s 11 a.m. staff meeting ASAP, in the comments section, below, after the meeting starts.

[Image: yesterday’s USAT print edition, Newseum]

Layoffs hit the TV division, too; details, please!

August 27, 2008

[Cutting staff? Screenshot of WBIR-TV’s website in Knoxville, Tenn.]

Gannett’s 23 TV stations are eliminating jobs in a new wave of layoffs that apparently mirrors the cuts just enacted at the company’s newspaper division, Gannett Blog readers tell me. I’m now looking for more details about the scale of this reduction, including the targeted number of jobs to be eliminated, and the date when this campaign began. (See my questions, below.)

Here’s one of the latest notes I’ve received: “Gannett broadcasting is ‘restructuring’ its broadcast operations. I know this for a fact; I was re-organized right out of a job at the Knoxville, Tenn., station. Master control at all the TV stations is being centralized in either Jacksonville, Fla. (NBC and ABC), or Greensboro, N.C. (CBS). Graphics is being centralized in Denver — and graphic artists have been laid off at all the stations, with the 10 largest stations retaining one artist. All the news graphics will done by the news producers and reporters via an automated graphics system (can anyone say, lots of typos?)

“At my former station, at least 13 people (out of 130) have been laid off, including my boss. He was in charge of programming, new media and commercial production. All of us in commercial production were laid off: Two were turned into ‘backpack’ client-services producers and moved into sales. They are being managed by a GSM who doesn’t think quality is important. (‘Everyone just watches it on YouTube or their phone, so quality isn’t important.’ She actually said that to me! Gee, then why is everyone buying those HD, plasma-screen monitors? Don’t you think they want to see pretty pictures?)

“So, my friend, newspapers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. The TV guys are taking it on the chin, as well.”

Did broadcasting division President Dave Lougee (left) notify employees in a memo? (If so, can you shoot it my way?) Or did he follow newspaper division chief Bob Dickey‘s example, and leave the dirty work to individual station managers? Please post 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.

Earlier: Layoffs at WLBZ-TV. Plus: Graphics group a ‘clusterfuck’