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July 1, 2008

On Media: Gannett’s ‘Friday Afternoon Massacre’

It’s possible, I suppose, to buy into the idealism expressed by publisher Denise Ivey in a rose-colored memo sent to the staff of The Courier-Journal on Friday. 

If you knew nothing else about the troubles at the Gannett Corporation, or the cutbacks at the local paper, it’s conceivable you could buy into these words: “ … I am committed to continuing the path of excellence on which we are traveling, and leading the team through this transition.”

In talking with staffers, however, most believe the sky is falling at Sixth and Broadway. One put it this way: “The mood is more or less ‘Oh dear God, what fresh hell is on the way now?’”

Contrast that with this, from Ivey’s memo: “I am so proud of The Courier-Journal and all of you … and what we’ve accomplished as a team … toward common goals and an overarching strategy that positions our organization to remain strong long into the future.”

None of the “worker bees” are buying into that one. Ivey tried her best to keep a sinking ship afloat, but the painful truth is that there’s no longer a business model for quality journalism.

“She was very professional and smart, obviously an outstanding businesswoman,” said Jason Falls, a local advocate of social media who works at the PR firm Doe Anderson. “But I thought also she was an old-school newspaper executive who didn’t have a finger on the pulse of the marketplace. She wasn’t excited about turning journalistic responsibilities over to the community.”

It’s ironic that most of the scuttlebutt about Gannett is found easily enough online, in the blogosphere, where Gannett papers are shifting resources. The independent Gannett Blog called the management changes the “Friday Afternoon Massacre.” The creation of former Courier-Journal and USA Today staffer Jim Hopkins, the blog is enjoying record traffic levels, and more than 100 comments were posted about the changes in 48 hours. 

If it were your only source for news about Gannett, you’d have a decidedly negative view of the company’s prospects and the brainpower of its management team. One reader, claiming to be a shareholder, told Gannett employees something none wanted to hear: “Gannett people, take a dose of reality. Between the two people to your left and right, one of you has to go … You are in trouble. Work harder and make more money for the company or lose your job.”

In another post, Hopkins shared a memo from the publisher of Gannett’s Westchester, N.Y. paper, which said: “We will hold open positions that are vacant, and review each one to determine whether it’s strategic or critical to fill. We will redeploy staff to critical strategic areas for news coverage, sales and other strategic priorities.”

Interestingly enough, the ink was barely dry on Ivey’s announcement when Metro columnist Bob Hill announced his upcoming retirement after 33 years in a Saturday column. It seems unlikely that his spot in the newspaper will be filled. 

Hill is part of the paper’s really old guard. And you can’t help but wonder which multi-decade employees with presumably healthy salaries will be next to go. Will it be the aging members of the editorial board, a group that seemingly hasn’t changed in at least the last two decades? Is David Hawpe secure? Betty Baye? Veterans with familiar bylines like Byron Crawford and Tom Dorsey can’t be too comfortable in this environment.

A call to Hill’s C-J phone gets you a message: Bob Hill is out seeking the truth. His mailbox was full, presumably from well-wishers congratulating him on escaping this wretched media business on his own terms. He never went much for blogging, and managed to continue writing three columns a week through the newsroom’s recent turmoil. Good for him, but others who prefer to stay at the paper may not be so fortunate.

He said on a KET show in 2007 that he just wasn’t interested in this new kind of journalism. 

Old-school newspaper workers, and readers, are bracing for more bad news and a continued slide in the quality of local journalism produced by the newspaper of record. As one Gannett Blog reader put it: “Brace yourself for a future where local news is a big collection of whatever the websites can scour up for free, with a little sprinkling of ‘investigative’ reporting as a fig leaf. Most of the customers are no longer willing to pay for more. No amount of hand-wringing or name-calling is going to change that.” 


Rick Redding writes frequently about local media and politics at his website: http://thevillevoice.com. Contact him at citystrobe@leoweekly.com